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Making China Great Again

“Passing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is as important to me as another aircraft carrier,” said former US defence secretary Ashton Carter two years ago, as the negotiations on the huge new free trade organisation were nearing completion.

Given that the United States already has twice as many aircraft carriers as all the rest of the world put together, that comment could be taken several ways, but Carter actually did mean that the TPP was strategically important in his eyes. As it was for ex-president Barack Obama, who saw the TPP as America’s main tool for containing China’s growing influence in Asia.

China, deliberately excluded from the 12-member club, saw it that way too. The official Hsinhua news agency regularly referred to the TPP as “the economic arm of the Obama administration’s geopolitical strategy to make sure that Washington rules supreme in the region.”

But the Obama administration is gone, and Donald Trump has just cut off that arm. “A great thing for the American worker, we just did,” Trump said after signing a document withdrawing US support for the TPP on Tuesday.

In fact, quitting the TPP is unlikely to do American workers much good economically, but it may not do them much harm either. Most analyses have concluded that the deal wouldn’t have had much effect either way on US wages and jobs – but leaving the TPP will certainly have a big impact on US power and influence in the world.

Xinhua was right: for Obama, the TPP was always more about the strategic rivalry with China than it was about economics. It still is, but Donald Trump’s electoral strategy has obliged him to declare war on free trade.

The voters that Trump targeted most heavily were working-class Americans who felt betrayed and abandoned as the well-paying jobs in manufacturing disappeared. However, there was no point in telling them that automation was destroying their jobs (which it is), because he could not plausibly promise to stop automation.

But if he claimed that the real problem was free trade, which allowed the Chinese and Mexicans and other sneaky foreigners to steal American jobs…well, he could certainly promise to stop that. He would build walls, cancel free-trade deals, even launch trade wars. It all sounded pretty credible, if you didn’t know that the vast majority of the lost jobs were really being stolen by robots.

So once he was in office, Trump was obliged to “unsign” the TPP deal, even though its main purpose, from Washington’s point of view, had been to perpetuate American economic and strategic dominance in Asia and freeze China out. In the eyes of Trump’s supporters (and maybe even in his own), he was slaying a dragon.

It looks different through the eyes of America’s erstwhile partners. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August, eleven other countries had to make big and politically painful concessions in return for access to the huge US market. “If at the end, waiting at the altar, the bride doesn’t arrive, I think that people are going to be very hurt.” And hurt feelings do matter, even in diplomatic circles.

The biggest cost to the United States is the fact that America’s defection from the TPP doesn’t automatically kill the notion of an Asian free-trade bloc. Australia is already talking about keeping the TPP going without the United States, but the likelier outcome is that the Asian members start trying to link up with China, Indonesia and even India in China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

In that case, the United States could end up excluded from a free-trading bloc that includes half of the world economy. The dominant economy in that bloc would be China’s, so the main practical effect of Trump’s action would be to give a major boost to China’s power and influence in the world.

This pattern is likely to be duplicated in other areas where Trump is pledged to abandon long-standing US diplomatic commitments. It is already happening in the domain of climate change, where Trump’s decision to “unsign” the 2015 Paris treaty to curb global warming has opened the door to a leadership role for China instead.

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this month, China’s President Xi Jinping said that “all signatories must stick to” the Paris deal: “walking away” from the pact would endanger future generations. And while Trump is slashing US spending on climate change, Xi has pledged to invest $360 billion in renewable energy in the next four years to reduce China’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s easy to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world when the standard of comparison is Donald Trump’s administration. He is making China great again, even if that is not quite what he intended.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“It looks…circles”)

Trump, WikiLeaks and Russia

When a Fox News reporter asked Donald Trump about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange back in 2010, just after Assange had released a huge cache of secret US diplomatic cables, the reality TV star had no doubts: “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like the death penalty or something.”

Circumstances change, however, and smart people with big brains know when it’s time to switch sides. It was WikilLeaks, once again, that revealed the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee that did such damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last summer. But Trump now readily accepts Assange’s word that he didn’t get those emails from the Russians.

Trump has been having a problem with the main US intelligence agencies, which unanimously insist that the Russians did indeed hack the DNC’s emails, and that they passed them to WikiLeaks (through an intermediary) in order to damage Clinton’s presidential election campaign. “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” as the joint intelligence report put it.

So Trump was very happy to be able to reply (in a tweet, of course) that “Assange… said Russians did not give him the info!” After all, what motive could Assange have for lying about it?

Well, there is the fact that Assange has been living in one room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the past four years, in order to avoid being extradited to the United States on espionage charges that could get him up to 45 years in prison. Donald Trump is the one person who could make all that trouble go away, once he becomes the president, so doing him a favour now might be a wise move on Assange’s part.

Assange would not even have to lie outright, because the Russians would obviously never give him the emails directly. There would have to be one or more persons in between, because WikiLeaks is not in the business of taking leaks from governments. Assange might have strong suspicions about who originally hacked the DNC, but he did not necessarily go all out to confirm them.

Moreover, as Trump points out, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are the same organisations that cooked up the evidence for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” so that President George W. Bush could invade Iraq.

Nevertheless, the US intelligence agencies are probably right to blame their Russian counterparts for the hacks that caused the Clinton campaign such problems. President Vladimir Putin has been quite open about preferring Trump to Clinton, and the leaks definitely gave a boost to Trump’s election campaign in late July and August.

On the other hand, that happened so long before the actual vote in November that it’s impossible to say if it had any effect on the outcome.

The event that probably did give Trump his very narrow margin of victory (100,000 votes spread between three key swing states) was FBI director James Comey’s bizarre decision to declare that Hillary Clinton was facing another investigation only eleven days before the vote.

It’s all might-have-beens, and the only reason it has become controversial is Trump’s extremely thin skin. He is questioning the intelligence services’ conclusions about Russian interference because he believes (wrongly) that they undermine the validity of his election victory. But his strong sympathy for the Russian position, though driven by perceived personal interests, is a refreshing break from the usual Washington paranoia.

He said it himself (in another tweet): “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only stupid people or fools would think that it is bad. We have enough problems around the world without yet another one.”

This is a perfectly reasonable statement. Trump’s views on China give cause for alarm, but his desire for a reconciliation with Russia makes more sense than the reflex hostility that both Hillary Clinton and the US intelligence services bring to the relationship. Vladimir Putin is a player, and sometimes he plays rough, but his recent meddling in the American election is far less than the massive US interference in Russian elections in the 1990s.

In seeking a rapprochement with Moscow, Trump should not make the mistake of accepting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Changing borders by force (even if most of the local population approves of it) has been banned by international law for more than half a century, and we should not start making exceptions to that rule now.

But while the United States never accepted the old Soviet Union’s illegal annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, it did not let that stand in the way of improving the US-Soviet relationship as the Cold War drew to an end.

There is much that the United States and Russia could usefully cooperate on now, starting with putting an end to the war in Syria. On this issue, at least, Trump is right and Obama, Clinton and the spooks are wrong.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Assange…them”; and “The event…vote”)

Aleppo and the Media

The stop-go evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from Aleppo had begun again as I write, but the reason for the last interruption was instructive. It was Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) that burned the buses coming to evacuate the wounded from Foah and Kefraya.

The same organisation dominates the rebel forces in Aleppo, and its propaganda has worked very well. According to Western media, the city of Aleppo has not just been “destroyed”; it has been “annihilated”. There has not only been a “massacre”; there has been a “genocide”.

Official sources have not been much better. Last week at the UN Security Council, US ambassador Samantha Power compared what was happening in Aleppo to other scenes of slaughter “that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later…Rwanda, Srebrenica and, now, Aleppo.”

Really?

In Rwanda, an estimated 800,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi minority, were murdered by the militia of the Hutu regime in 1994 in a period of three and a half months. About 20 percent of the country’s population, and up to 70 percent of its Tutsis, were killed.

In Srebrenica in 1995, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, civilians who had been living under UN “protection”, were systematically shot and buried by Serbian troops in a single day. That was a genocide too, although the numbers were far smaller than in Rwanda. The victims were killed BECAUSE they were Muslims.

So does Aleppo really belong on this grim list? We don’t know the exact number of civilians who died there, but a reasonable guess would be that between one thousand and several thousand civilians were killed by bombs and shellfire during the final four months of the siege.

That would be a dreadful toll even if eastern Aleppo had really held 250,000 civilians, as the rebels claimed. The real number of civilians was far lower than that, maybe as little as a quarter as many, which would mean that the civilian death rate was even worse.

But that is what happens in sieges, even when they are conducted by people much nicer than Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Does anybody really believe that the civilian death toll will be lower if and when the Iraqi army retakes the besieged city of Mosul?

Nothing that has happened so far in either city is a patch on what happened to civilians in Leningrad in 1941-42, or in Manila and Berlin in 1945. And by the way, Aleppo has not been “annihilated”, although there has been massive destruction in the eastern suburbs and considerable damage in the centre.

In the western half of Aleppo, where the regime never lost control, around a million people have gone about their daily lives almost as normal, losing only a dozen or so dead a month to the shells and rockets that the rebels fired into their zone.

I’m not writing this as a defence of the Assad regime, but because we need to understand why the Western media peddled such a distorted picture of what was going on.

The problem was that the ten thousand fighters who controlled eastern Aleppo (but were never mentioned or seen in any of the reports that came out of there) also controlled the people who were doing the blogs and uploading the images. The civilians were the rebels’ most valuable resource. Indeed, they frequently killed civilians who tried to leave.

Some of the bloggers and videographers probably supported the extreme Islamist groups who dominated the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo. Others may have been less keen on their local rulers, although they all backed the revolt against Assad. But they all knew that the penalty for saying or showing things that displeased their juhadi rulers would be arrest and torture, perhaps death.

The rebels wanted the siege to be portrayed as a senseless and brutal assault on civilians (and only on civilians) because their only hope was to shock and shame foreign powers, especially the United States, into intervening militarily and stopping the siege. It was never likely to happen, but they obviously thought it was worth a try.

And the Western media ran this propaganda because nothing else was available. Foreign journalists did not dare to enter eastern Aleppo because they knew they would be killed. If they were allowed to report freely, it would spoil the rebels’ game.

A lot of news editors understood just what the game was, but they used the material anyway – and they did not warn the audience that it was, in effect, propaganda. So it’s not surprising that even normally sensible grown-ups are resorting to the apocalyptic rhetoric we have been hearing recently.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“That…worse”)

Italy: “I Say No”

“Today saying No is the most beautiful and glorious form of politics….Whoever doesn’t understand that can go screw themselves.” It could have been Donald Trump before the US election two weeks ago, or Boris Johnson during the Brext campaign in Britain last June, but it was actually Beppe Grillo, founder and leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement.

Grillo unhesitatingly compares his movement to “Trumpismo” in the United States, and the Five Star Movement (M5S) is currently running neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in the opinion polls. Moreover, if Renzi loses the referendum on changing the Italian constitution that takes place this Sunday, there may be an election in Italy quite soon.

Matteo Renzi wanted to replace the elected Senate with a smaller appointed body and make other changes to streamline the process of passing laws in Italy. He got his proposal through both houses of parliament last April – but with such a slim majority that the results had to be confirmed by a referendum. At the time Renzi was confident that he would win it easily.

But that was before the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the irresistible rise of Donald Trump in the United States put wind in the sails of the Five Star Movement. Now the M5S’s “Io Dico No” (I Say No) campaign is drawing huge crowds as it tours Italian cities, and the final opinion polls before the vote on 4 December gave the “No” a five-point lead in the referendum.

As the polls began to turn against his constitutional reforms, Renzi warned that he would resign if the vote went against them. But all that did was to turn it into a referendum on his own popularity, which is turning out to be considerably less than he imagined. And if M5S comes to power, it is pledged to hold another referendum – this time on pulling Italy out of the euro “single currency”.

At the moment a large majority of Italians still want to keep the euro, but that could change. Italian cities don’t look as devastated as the US Rust Belt, but the same processes that brought Donald Trump to the presidency have been at work in Italy. Average family income is still less that it was before the 2008 crash, and unemployment among the young is close to 40 percent.

An estimated quarter of Italian industry has closed down in the past decade, and the country is staggering under the burden of a public debt that amounts to 132 percent of GDP. If uncertainty about the euro crashes Italy’s economy (the third-largest economy in the Eurozone), then all 19 countries that use the euro, some 340 million people, are in deep trouble.

And the Italian economy could go belly up, because Italian banks are now as vulnerable as American banks were before 2008. They are stuffed with “non-performing loans” that have not been written off, but stay on the banks’ books at around 45-50 percent of their original value. But they are really only worth about 20 percent of the original price.

If Italian banks marked these loans down to their true market value, it would wipe out their capital and they would all go bankrupt overnight. It is an accident waiting to happen – and a “No” victory in the referendum could be that accident, because it might open the Five Star Movement’s road to power.

In theory, it’s a long road from a “No” in Sunday’s constitutional referendum to an M5S government and a referendum on the euro. If Renzi resigns, and if no other combination of parties in parliament can form a government (probably not), there would be an election. But then M5S would have to win a majority, which is a long way from its current 30 percent support.

In practice, it might be quite a short road. A lot of Italians are so angry that they just want to punish “the elites”. If both M5S and the right-wing Lega Nord (which also wants to quit the euro) did well in the election, they might be able to form a coalition government, and then the fat would be in the fire.

Technically, only the single currency would be at risk, but in the current febrile atmosphere in Western politics, with support for populist parties surging everywhere, things can change very rapidly.

It is no longer inconceivable that the National Front, which wants to leave not just the euro but the European Union, could win the French presidential election in April. With Britain on its way out, a French government that wants to follow suit, and an Italian government that
at least wants to leave the euro, the entire 60-year-old project of European unity could crumble by the end of next year.

That’s a lot of ifs, and the likelihood of such a calamity is still very small. But we do live in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“And the…power”)