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Preposterous Times

All the talk of special prosecutors and the like will not bring the man to book. The soap opera will continue and no amount of dysfunction in the White House will make it stop until early 2019 at best. Even though a great deal of damage will have been done by then.

Some of the damage will only affect the United States. Donald Trump doesn’t often violate the Constitution, but he breaks all the unwritten rules that regulate the behaviour of public officials: don’t use your office to enrich yourself, don’t give plum jobs to your relatives, don’t fire the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he’s leading an investigation into possibly treasonous behaviour among your close associates.

However, these are domestic American problems, and the American republic will survive them. In four years, or at most eight, Trump will be gone, and more-or-less normal service will resume. But the same recklessness, brought to bear on foreign affairs, may have far bigger consequences.

Most of the concern at the moment is focused on North East Asia where Trump’s
scarcely veiled threat to “do something” about North Korea could escalate a long-standing problem into a “major, major conflict”. But most other major players in the North East Asian game are grown-ups who do not want a nuclear war in their region, so the risk of a calamity there is much smaller than it looks.

The Middle East is more frightening than north east Asia in this context, for half the countries of the regions are already at war one way or another, none of the regimes really feels secure – and Trump has already launched a missile strike against the Syrian regime.

He justified it as retaliation for the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime – an allegation that has not been conclusively proved – but most people in the region take it as a sign that he is joining the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia war.

This alignment didn’t start with Trump, of course. For more than half a century the United States has seen Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, as its most important ally in the Middle East, and for the past forty years it has regarded Iran as the root of all evil in the region.

Iran is the leader of the Shia bloc. In fact, it is the only big and powerful Shia country. Trump has already expressed hostility towards Iran, and his intentions to abandon the treaty that President Obama signed to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for the next ten years. And on Friday Trump is making his first foreign visit – to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia and leader of the Sunni bloc.

Although Prince Mohammed is almost forty years younger than Donald Trump, the two men share several striking characteristics. The Saudi Arabian leader (his father, King Salman, is 81 and not fully functional) is not as ignorant as Trump, but the two men are almost twins in temperament. The Prince is just as vain as Trump, just as impulsive, and just as likely to start a fight he can’t finish.

Prince Mohammed’s escalation of Saudi Arabian support for the al Qaeda-linked faction in the Syrian civil war two years ago was the direct cause for the Russian intervention that ultimately saved the Assad regime. His military intervention in Yemen, trying to put the Saudi Arabian-imposed president back into power has led only to an unwinnable war and a looming famine in the country. And he’s up for fighting Iran too.

In an interview broadcast this month on Saudi TV he said: “we will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia. We will work so the battle is in Iran.” Why? Because, accordin to the Prince, Iran’s leaders are planning to seize Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, and establish their rule over the world’s billion and a half Muslims.

This is paranoid nonsense. Only one tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shia. The only three Muslim countries (out of 50) where they are the majority are Iran, Iraq and tiny Bahrein.

Iran sends troops to help the beleaguered, Shia-dominated Assad regime in Syria, and money and weapons to the (Shia) Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But in the 38 years since the current regime came to power in Tehran, it has never invaded anybody And the notion that it could or would invade Saudi Arabia is simply laughable.

Never-the-less, what matters here are not the facts but what Trump and Prince Mohammed may believe to be the facts. So the prospect of the two men getting together in Riyadh will arouse dread in Iran, and in some other quarters as well.

It’s preposterous to imagine that Saudi Arabia would attack Iran directly or that the United States would encourage Saudi Arabia or pursue such a strategy – or that Russia would let itself be drawn in on the other side. But we do live ibn preposterous times.

There is no chance that the Republican majority in the US Congress would impeach Donald Trump before the mid-term elections in late 2018 no matter what he does. Unless there is a complete collapse in the Republican vote then, they won’t impeach him either. It’s going to be a long four years.

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To shorten to 7 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most …looks”; and “Prince…too”)

So Much for the Populist Wave

In his victory speech on Sunday night Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, said: “I want to become…the president of the patriots in the face of the threat from the nationalists.” The distinction would be lost on most Trump supporters in the United States and on the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit in Britain, but it’s absolutely clear to the French, and indeed to most Europeans.

In the United States the preferred word is “patriot”, but it usually just means “nationalist”, with flags flaunted and slogans chanted. “America First” says Trump, and the crowd replies “USA all the way!”

You can’t imagine a British election rally doing that – the United Kingdom is too close to mainland Europe, where that sort of thing ended very badly – but the English nationalism behind Brexit was painfully obvious. For some in both countries it’s actually “white nationalism”, but even the many non-racists who voted for Trump or Brexit draw the line at the border or the water’s edge. There’s “us”, and on the far side there’s “them”.

Whereas the French men and women who voted for Macron understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism very well. They will have to vote for Macron again in the run-off election on 7 May, when his opponent will be the neo-fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, but in that round they will be joined by almost all the people who voted for other presidential candidates in the first round. She is a nationalist; they are patriots.

In Europe, nationalism is linked in the collective memory with the catastrophe of the last century’s great wars, and the racism that is often associated with it triggers images of Nazi extermination camps. Not all Europeans are immune to that kind of nationalism or political phenomena like Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppo Grillo in Italy could not exist, but they remain a minority almost everywhere.

That was not obvious four months ago. After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s election in November, Europe’s ultra-nationalists were convinced that their moment had finally come – and many observers feared that they were right. Brexit seemed like the first step towards the break-up of the European Union, and from the Netherlands to Austria it felt like the fascists were at the door.

Not so. Wilders’s party gained only a few seats in last month’s Dutch election and remains very much a minority taste. Marine Le Pen is no closer to the French presidency than her openly fascist father was fifteen years ago: the National Front vote never breaks through the 25 percent ceiling. And the hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU “Alternative for Germany” party has lost its leader and one-third of its popular support in the past month.

Some of this is simply disillusionment. Significant numbers of Europeans were initially tempted to back local populist parties by the sheer flamboyance of Trump’s US electoral campaign. After all, Europeans also worry about immigration and terrorism and unemployment, and his rude and crude rhetoric seemed to validate the similar language of their own populist leaders.

But the reality of the dysfunctional Trump White House has turned off most of those recent European converts to populist politics. By and large the hard-right parties of Europe are back where they were before The Donald burst upon the scene, with almost no chance of gaining real political power. It was a false alarm.

The “populist wave” that seemed to be sweeping through Western politics turns out to be merely a storm in the much smaller teacup known as the “Anglosphere”. It’s only known this way to Europeans, who use the word, often tinged with contempt, to describe the deregulated economies and market-obsessed politics of the post-Reagan United States and post-Thatcher United Kingdom. (Australia occasionally gets an honourable mention too.)

For a quarter of a century the politics of the Anglosphere has been consistently subservient to “the market” even when purportedly left-wing leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in power. The result, as you would expect, has been somewhat higher economic growth rates, and a rapidly widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the rest.

The rest of the West has not been immune to this political fashion, but it has been far less prominent in the countries of the European Union (and even in deviant anglophone countries like Canada and New Zealand). Now the disparity in incomes between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has grown so great in the heartlands of the Anglosphere that the political chickens are coming home to roost.

The response in both the United States and the United Kingdom is not real populism, which for all its faults does at least try to shrink income inequalities. It is standard right-wing politics in a populist style, using nationalism to distract the victims from the fact that these governments actually serve the rich.

Move along, please. There’s nothing new to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Some…alarm”)

“Solving” North Korea

Never mind the legalities of the situation. Never mind morality either. Just answer the pragmatic question: Is it ever a good idea to start a nuclear war? Because that’s the notion that Donald Trump is actually playing with.

He didn’t say exactly that, of course. He said that “If China is not going to solve (the nuclear threat from) North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” But in the context of that interview with the Financial Times, it was clear what he meant.

Trump was saying that if China did not use the tools at its disposal (political influence, trade sanctions, withholding financial aid) to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and long-range rockets, then the United States would use the tools at its disposal (the world’s most powerful armed forces) to accomplish the same goal.

This does not necessarily mean that the United States would launch a large nuclear attack against North Korea. If you are really serious about carrying out a “disarming strike” that destroys all of North Korea’s nukes, you probably should do exactly that. (You never get a second chance to go first.) But maybe the US Air Force would promise that “precision” non-nuclear weapons could accomplish that goal, and maybe some gullible people would believe it.

It would still turn into a nuclear war in the end, unless American “surgical strikes” miraculously eliminated every last one of North Korea’s nukes at the same time. Kim Jong-un’s regime would find itself in the position known in nuclear strategy as “use them or lose them”, and it is hard to believe that it would not launch whatever it had left.

The targets would be in South Korea, of course, but probably also American bases in Japan. Maybe even Japanese cities, if North Korea had enough weapons left. The regime would know it was going under – the United States would not take this huge risk and then leave it in power – so it would take as many of its enemies as possible down with it.

North America would probably not be hit, because Western intelligence services do not believe that Pyongyang has ballistic missiles that can reach that far yet. (But “intelligence” is not the same as knowing for sure, and they could be wrong.) At worst, the victims would be one or two cities in the Pacific north-west of the United States.

This would be a very bad outcome for people living in Seattle or Portland, but it would not actually be a “nuclear holocaust”. The kind of war that the super-powers would have fought at the height of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear weapons used by each side, would have killed hundreds of millions, and might even have triggered a “nuclear winter”.

A nuclear war over Korea would be a much smaller catastrophe, perhaps involving a few million deaths – unless China got drawn in. Unfortunately, that is not inconceivable, because China, much as it dislikes and mistrusts the North Korean regime, is determined not to see it destroyed.

Many people are uncomfortable with this kind of analysis, especially when it draws comparisons between “bad” and “less bad” nuclear wars. Herman Kahn, the dean of nuclear strategists in the 1960s and 70s, was frequently the target of this kind of criticism: how could he talk about potential mass death in such a cold-blooded way?

His response was always the same: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?” “Thinking About the Unthinkable”, as he put it in one of his books, is absolutely necessary if the Unthinkable is not happen. In this case, that means taking the possibility that China might be drawn into the conflict seriously.

The destruction of the North Korean regime would bring American military power right to China’s own border. You might reasonably ask: So what? This is the 21st century, and what matters strategically is the big, lethal long-range weapons (like nukes), not the whereabouts of a few American infantry battalions. Quite right in theory. Not necessarily right in practice.

During the Korean War, when American troops were operating very close to the Chinese frontier in late 1950, the Chinese regime sent troops in to save the North Korean regime – and succeeded. The scenario this time, with nuclear weapons already being used on both sides of the North Korea-South Korea frontier, would be different, but it could be even more dangerous. China has lots of nuclear weapons, and delivery vehicles too.

Donald Trump is the fourth American president to be faced with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons, and none of them has found a safe and effective way of dealing with it. But all the others avoided making open threats of violence, because that would probably just make matters worse.

Of course, Trump may just be bluffing. In fact, he almost certainly is. But if your bluff is called, you have to go through with your threat or accept being humiliated. The Donald doesn’t do humiliation.
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To shrten to 725 words, omit paragraphs10 and 11. (“Many…seriously”)

Coal is Dead

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” said Donald Trump, surrounded by the usual gaggle of officials and (in this case) coal-miners, as he put his super-size signature on the Energy Independence Executive Order. But coal is dying as a major energy source in the United States for reasons far beyond the reach of executive orders.

“The miners are coming back,” Trump boasted at a rally in Kentucky last week, but no less an authority than Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, the biggest US coal company, promptly rained on his parade. “I suggested that (Trump) temper his expectations,” he said. “He can’t bring them back.”

Trump’s latest executive order is not just about coal, of course. It’s a frontal assault on all the Obama-era regulations that aimed at curbing climate change. But while it will slow the decline in US greenhouse gas emissions, it will not have a major impact on global emissions.

That is partly because US accounts for only 16 percent of global emissions. Compared to China’s 29 percent, it doesn’t matter all that much, and China remains committed to big cuts.

In January China scrapped plans for 104 new coal-fired power plants, and it intends to invest $361 billion (equal to half the US defence budget) in renewable energy between now and 2020. The Chinese government is spending that kind of money because it is rightly terrified about what global warming will do to China’s economy and above all to its food supply.

Like the Indians, the Europeans, and pretty much everybody else, the Chinese remain committed to the climate goals agreed at Paris in December 2015 even though the United States has defected. Their own futures depend on meeting those goals – and they know that the American defection does not destroy all hope of success. Globally speaking, it’s not that big a deal.

It would seem like a much bigger deal, however, if they were not confident that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decline under Trump, though not as fast as they would under a less ignorant and less compromised administration. Coal provides an excellent example of why.

In 2009, when Barack Obama entered the White House, coal provided 52 percent of US electricity. In only eight years it has fallen to 33 percent, and the decline has little to do with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. First cheap gas from fracking undercut the coal price, and then even solar power got cheaper than coal – so 411 coal-fired plants closed down, and more than fifty coal-mining companies went bankrupt.

Half the 765 remaining big coal-fired plants in the United States were built before 1972. Since the average age when American coal-fired plants are scrapped is 58 years, half of them will soon be gone no matter what Trump does, and even he cannot make it economically attractive to build new ones. (Only 9 percent of American coal-fired plants were built in the past quarter-century.)

Coal is by far the most polluting of the fossil fuels, producing twice as much carbon dioxide as gas does for the same amount of energy, but that alone wasn’t enough to turn the energy industry against it. It’s the cost per per kilowatt-hour of electricity that matters, and coal has simply been overtaken by cheaper forms of energy.

Even in India, the most heavily coal-dependent of the big economies and a country with vast amounts of coal, solar energy prices are now on a par with coal. Sheer inertia means that India will go on expanding coal-fired generation for a few more years, but its National Electricity Plan projects no further increase in coal-based capacity after 2022. King Coal truly is dead.

You don’t need good intentions to do the right thing for climate safety any more; just common sense. From fuel efficiency in automobiles to replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas or solar arrays, saving money goes hand-in-hand with cutting emissions. The economy is not your enemy; it’s your ally. So Trump won’t do nearly as much harm as people feared.

President Obama promised last year to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by about 26 per cent from the 2005 level by 2025. About half of that 26 percent cut would have come in Trump’s first and maybe only term (2017-20), so say 13 percent. The US accounts for 16 percent of global emissions, so do the math: 13 percent of 16 percent equals about 2 percent of global emissions.

That’s what would be at stake over the next four years if Trump’s presidency stopped all the anticipated reductions in greenhouse emissions that Obama based his promise on – but it won’t. A lot of those emission cuts are going to happen anyway, because they just make economic sense. At a guess, around half of them.

So how much damage can Trump do to the global fight against climate change over the next four years? He can keep global emissions about one percent higher than they would have been if the United States had kept its promise to the Paris conference. And that’s all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Coal…dead”)