Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

COVID-19 and US-China Relations

                                                      Photo Credit: Fox News Online 

YS and two of his colleagues at Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani, Mariane Delanova and Rama Daru Jati, recently finished a paper on US-China relations in a post-COVID world. Below Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman discuss the main points of the paper, US-China relations more generally, and lastly the wider international political and security impact of COVID. 

BN: To start, let's get the big question out of the way. How do you and your colleagues see COVID-19 impacting US-China relations? What's your argument?

YS: In essence, it is my argument that COVID is leading to a decline in trust between the US and China. While it can be argued that ties between the US and China are deep and can withstand the breakdown due to COVID-19, I disagree. There won't be a complete breakdown, at least not yet, even with all of Trump's blustering–and both him and China know it—but in essence, we will see the beginning of a warmer Cold War. Rather than complete hostility/containment policies like the US pursued during the Cold War, it will be a limited containment, with more economic/political engagement than the US had with the USSR during the Cold War.

BN: How exactly does COVID "lead to a decline in trust between the US and China"? What are the key events, processes, etc., triggering the decline in trust?

YS: As I noted in my paper, the key is the politicization of the virus. On the one hand, we see China's victory laps in the US and Europe and its hamfisted attempt to shift the blame from its censorship and cover-ups and slowness to act initially; while in the US, both Trump and Biden are trying to show themselves as tough against China. Granted that this can be argued as just political rhetoric, but with rising distrust toward China within the US population, it will have significant effects in the aftermath of COVID.

BN: Is the virus a primary causal factor in the deteriorating relations between the US and China? Or just another major issue lumped atop of several major issues (trade, currency, BRI, South China Sea, Taiwan, Huawei, etc.) that plague the US-China relationship these days?

YS: The virus is basically the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, since it is basically threatens vital US interests—plus, this is an election year in the US.

BN: Is this downturn in US-China relations a short-term thing or something more protracted? After all, the election will be done and resolved—I hope—by early November. So what happens after that, in either a second term Trump or a 1st term Biden administration?

YS: This will last a while. Not only due to the election, but also, like I mentioned, due to various things that China has done. And the virus has made a number of countries around the world very hostile to China. And Biden will be tarred and feathered as weak against China should he win and decide to accommodate China. Even before the virus, during the Democratic Presidential Debate, virtually everyone on the podium bashed China. Maybe the Democrats don't mean it, but they are all aware that being soft on China does not help them at all. Yes, elections are poetry while governing is prose. But being soft on China will hurt Biden's presidency—similar to the accusation that Presidents Truman and Carter were soft against the commies.

BN: I think you’re on to something. In the US, increasingly the driving force behind souring relations with China is, in my view, a product of a new American political consensus that China is a growing threat (to the US, to US allies, and to the world order). Coincidentally, I've read a few pieces today on the possibility of an emerging Sino-US cold war. And those articles typically argue that the signs of a new cold war are grounded in objective facts—economic, political, security policies and statements China has said and done. But I think that misses the mark a bit. Almost all of those things, except for China's actions in the early days of the pandemic, have been present for years. What's changed is America's perception of China. Put simply, China is a looming threat to the US because key leaders in the US, on both sides of the political aisle, see China as a threat. The key question is why have those perceptions changed? I bet Obama wishes he had this consensus behind him as he tried to implement his Pivot to Asia.

I don't think it's a given that a President Biden goes weak on China, precisely because of this new American consensus on China. He'll probably attempt to reset the relationship. But there's no guarantee that will go well (See: the Obama-Biden-Clinton reset with Russia.) And if he goes weak on China, he'll get dragged back to a harder line eventually by both R's and D's and the larger Blob network.

YS: I will need more data, but I suspect this COVID-19 is what is causing the fall in US perception towards China. See the Pew Research graphic below. Of course, the trade war, among other things, has also influenced America’s increasingly negative view towards China. I think Trump's trade war does sour people's view towards China—more and more people now know that China is not a fair economic partner.

But I'd argue that COVID is the real game changer. While companies have been grumbling about China's industrial espionage, a majority of people didn't feel the pain/didn’t care. COVID-19 is the great equalizer, and everyone sees China as the culprit and China does not want to own it.

BN: Given what you've said, where does all of this lead? How does the US, its allies, and any other state that's now highly skeptical and suspicious of China deal with and respond to China going forward? Are we entering the early days of a "new cold war"?

YS: We will end up in a new cold war for sure, which might not a bad thing. While, yes, the risk of war (and nuclear war) will increase, I don't think it is all bad, though. China will have to learn to compromise lest it will find itself isolated. And the US will also have to start focusing on third world countries like it did during the Cold War.

BN: One of things I see—and it fits in line with your arguments about US-China relations—is that China is attempting to use COVID as a window of opportunity to boost its position in the world. I think that's a key here. That's driving some of the problems between the US and China these days.
The US sees China as the problem (the source of the virus, yes, but also that China downplayed and covered up the virus for weeks), and cannot stomach that Beiing has the nerve to say that it’s the solution.

For instance, China is now parading around the world touting its "success" in combating the coronavirus and offering medical supplies to needy nations. Many experts see this as evidence that China's using COVID to boost its soft power (Of course, we can question whether these attempts are working, but still..). On top of that, China's engaged with the US in a propaganda war, blaming the US for the virus. While many people outside China aren't moved by Beijing's narrative, I do think it's helping the authorities in China by quieting internal dissent and rancor. Which, in turn, strengthens the Chinese state and Xi's hand—essential things in China's competition with the US. More ominously, China's taking advantage of a distracted US and international community as a whole to seize control over Hong Kong. It's upped its control over Hong Kong over the last few weeks and the latest legislation will effectively wipe out any freedoms and sense of autonomy that the city-state has had. This is a problem by itself, as the US is worried about the fate of Hong Kong (economically and politically), but it also might signify larger ramifications. What's happening in Hong Kong could signal a new turn in China's approach to what it views as "rogue" territories, like Taiwan, if not a more significant change in posture toward parts of Asia. I'm sure alarm bells are going off at the US State Department, Defense, the CIA, hawkish think tanks, and so on.

YS: China is basically snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And Trump is doing the same: giving China platforms to tout its propaganda, by, for instance, behaving stupidly vis-à-vis the WHO. I understand that the WHO has acted badly in kissing Xi's behind, but by not pushing for multilateral solutions, Trump is basically allowing China to gain the moral high ground. Overall, it is like an old Tom and Jerry cartoon—they both tried to pass bomb to each other—but in this case, they are passing victory to each other and each refuses to accept it due to their own stupidity. 

BN: Before we wrap up this chat, let's look beyond US-China relations to what global politics and security and economics will look like in a COVID (and post-COVID) world. How do you see global politics and security being impacted?

YS: Aside from a short- to medium-term economic crash? People will start paying more attention to global health issue, at least for the next few years.

People are screaming about oil prices tanking, but once the pandemic passes, the demand of oil will rebound. It may hit $100/barrel for a bit, then expect fracking to revive and to push oil price back down. This, however, may hurt Russia badly, so I think we might see retrenchment of Russia. Already there are squabbles between Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus on the future of Russia in Syria.
Overall in global politics, though, I am not sure there will be that much of significant change.

BN: Richard Haass and Stephen Walt both argue that COVID will act as an accelerant on existing trends. I can see how health issues/capabilities in individual states will intensify the focus on domestic concerns, trigger a backlash against "outsiders" and "foreigners," and increase skepticism of global organizations and institutions, like the WHO and UN. All of that could, in turn, lead to a greater push toward nationalist politics, a decline in support for globalization and global institutions, and the world order will continue to crumble. Makes sense, right? However, I do wonder whether the deepening and pervasiveness of these trends will be temporary or enduring.

In many ways, it depends on what happens in November. If Biden wins the election, I can see him using the pandemic, and the resulting health and political fallout, as a rallying point to re-energize global cooperation on several fronts, especially global health. But if he doesn't, then it will be more of the same for the next four years, with China having a free hand to shape the world order as the US pulls back and undermines the very order it created 75+ years ago.

The global economy could be an even bigger problem than global politics. US stock market bettors are gambling that COVID is just a bump in the road, given that the Dow is still over 25,000, but that's more hype than reality, I'm afraid. Small businesses are going to be routed because of COVID, as will stores that make the bulk of their money from in-person transactions. Tourism is going to take a deep hit. If sports teams around the world don't allow fans to attend, then many cities are going to be in dire straits over the next year or more. How long will it take for people to feel comfortable to live their lives as they once did (even when restrictions are fully lifted)? Because if they don't, that will create a huge economic drag--both in individual nations and in the global economy as a whole. And once countries start to open up again, will people who have been laid off or furloughed get their jobs back or find new ones? Maybe not, particularly as businesses adapt and refine themselves in a COVID world of fewer resources.

This is exactly the kind of world that needs a strong, unified, and competent EU, US, and global economic institutions to provide adequate leadership, technical expertise, and $. But these actors are unready and/or unwilling to act on their own or collectively as global economic leaders and problem solvers. Already, there is much talk about supply chains being rerouted away from China (to the extent that’s feasible). While that’s not surprising given this crisis, it’s not a good sign that global cooperation will rule the day.

YS: Health issues will be seen as important in Post-COVID world, though for how long is a big question. The Spanish Flu devastated the world for two years, with very high number of deaths compared to COVID-19, and yet we never think of it as important—heck people laughed at George W. Bush for stressing the perils of pandemics. Jay Leno, I believe, once quipped that when Bush's health secretary talked about the necessity of stockpiling tuna, he said he'd better off getting the plague. So, the one million dollar question is how long and how much devastation this pandemic will cause before it will have a long-term impact.

I see the EU (and the US, should Biden win) wanting to exert more influence in the WHO, given how its current arrangement does not help that much in preventing pandemics. There might be a greater push for international organizations to have more power to intervene in states. Of course, China will do whatever they can to block it, so, yes, at the end of the day, state power still matters more than institutions. I think China will win the battle for COVID but lose the war, especially if the US comes around and declares that it will give more authority to WHO to deal with health issues.
And I agree that the global economy is a wild card. It really depends on how long the pandemic lasts. And now we can only cross our fingers and hope that they will create a vaccine ASAP.

BN: Lastly, how do you see the study of and writings on IR being affected by COVID? Of course, already, there has been some work focusing on (1) the impact of diseases and pandemics on IR, and (2) what a post-COVID world will look like. Do you see any other new or previously underexplored areas of study popping up as a result of COVID? And if not, why not?

YS: Similar to post-9/11, we will see a rush in pandemic studies in IR. There will be renewed attention to how pandemic affects/upends international order (e.g. Justinian Plague that put the nail in the coffin of the revival of Roman Empire, the Black Death that destroyed the Byzantine Empire and heralded the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, Black Death's influence on the collapse of Catholic dominance in Europe, etc.). It is a neglected part of literature that perhaps scholars will take a second look at.

COVID will also renew the debate on whether authoritarianism or democracy is better at tackling crises. And as you previously mentioned, in your last blog post, neoliberal institutionalism will have to answer a lot of problems arises from this virus (e.g. lack of unity in EU, lack of international cooperation despite of decades of institution-trust building all over the world, etc.). Realists will have to account for pandemics and health issues more general in their research programs. Truly, there are a lot of new research projects that I can see from COVID. Of course, the question is whether we will see any COVID-fatigue and how the gatekeepers in the discipline will look at this.

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.