Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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.