Category: Daniel Serwer

Trump: friend or foe?

Here are the speaking notes I used this morning for a talk at the Italian Institute of International Affairs (IAI):

  1. First the caveats: I supported and voted for Hillary Clinton. I’d have been glad to see her serve Barack Obama’s third term.
  2. Most Americans agreed with me by a margin of almost 3 million votes, but their voice is heard only state-by-state through the Electoral College, which favors smaller states and enables someone to win without a plurality of popular votes.
  3. The result is Donald Trump, who had never run for office but was well-known both as a television personality and as a proponent of the false claim that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore ineligible to be president.
  4. That was not the last of his fallacious claims, which now include the numbers of people at his inauguration, denials that his campaign was in touch with the Russians, and allegations that his predecessor tapped his phones.
  5. Trump has now put together an Administration best described not as conservative or even Republican but rather as radical.
  6. It has two main ideological apillars: ethnic nationalism and anti-government activism.
  7. With three important exceptions—at Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans’ affairs—all of Trump’s cabinet appointees are explicitly dedicated to the proposition that the departments they lead should not exist, or should be vastly reduced in size and regulatory relevance.
  8. Diplomacy and international development are among the disfavored government functions. The outline of Trump’s first budget proposal supports this view: State and AID take a whopping cut of about 30%.
  9. This will be mostly welcome among the Tea Party Republicans in both houses of Congress, but the Administration is not entirely congruent with them, since it also wants to preserve the social and health safety nets for older Americans (Social Security and Medicare) and to conduct a major infrastructure program that will require at least some government funding.
  10. There are also some in Congress who will resist the cuts to the State Department and USAID, likely with some measure of success.
  11. The ethnic nationalist pillar is most highly relevant to domestic policy, as the U.S. is a multi-ethnic country with significant Black, Hispanic, Indian, and non-Christian minorities.
  12. Trump has said in public he does not understand the phrase “all men are created equal.” He pointed out to a reporter several years ago that the phrase is obviously not true. Some are brighter than others, some prettier.
  13. This failure to understand one of the basic tenets of liberal democracy—equality before the law, not in personal attributes—is fundamental to this Administration.
  14. It is not merely ethnonationalist, but specifically white supremacist, which will color (pun intended) its view of the world.
  15. The Administration intends to limit immigration of non-Christians and non-whites, support ethnic nationalists in Europe and elsewhere, and back off commitments to democracy worldwide.
  16. The white nationalism is also, in my view, fundamental to Trump’s attitude towards Russia. He sees in Vladimir Putin an ethno-nationalist soulmate.
  17. Fortunately, many Republicans in Congress have been uncomfortable with Trump’s admiration for Putin. The investigation of the Trump campaign’s many connections to the Russians has likely at least postponed if not destroyed any sell out of Ukraine or Syria.
  18. It’s hard to picture how a president would cozy up to the guy who ordered the massive hacking of Yahoo.
  19. What are the implications for Europe and for foreign policy more generally? Is Trump friend, foe or something in between?
  20. Trump’s ethno-nationalist cohort thinks of itself as “European,” by which it means white.
  21. I don’t think most of my European friends would agree, but many of you will recognize the ethno-nationalists as the brethren of the Brexit leave campaign, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, and Silvio Berlusconi, who in many ways was a precursor to the Trump phenomenon: businessman turned populist, rightwing but big spender, misogynist and racist.
  22. Supporters of those leaders will regard Trump as friend. Liberal democrats who believe in equality before the law will regard him as foe.
  23. There are other reasons for Europe to view Trump with suspicion.
  24. His insistence on bilateralism is incompatible with the EU and his doubts about the NATO Alliance should raise eyebrows, even though his Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor have boxed him into a more traditional approach on that subject.
  25. Trump’s attitude toward Russia—Putin does no wrong worth mentioning—suggests that Trump’s commitment to democracy will be negligible.
  26. His worldview is incompatible with the widening of democratic practice as well as the international institutions and norms the United States has worked hard to build up in the 70 odd years since World War II.
  27. He clearly would like fewer international restrictions and more freedom to do as America pleases, no matter what others may think.
  28. This will include military action, which is the only instrument of foreign policy Trump has committed to beefing up.
  29. He has loosened the restrictions on military action in Somalia and Yemen and tried to accelerate the taking of Raqqa from the Islamic State, without any plans for how Yemen and Raqqa will be governed if the military action is successful.
  30. Even sanctions have not appeared as an important tool in this administration, and soft power is never mentioned. Never mind the moral stature of the U.S.
  31. There is however growing evidence that hard cash is influential with Trump: his softening towards China has gone in parallel with Chinese investments in his son-in-law’s business deals.
  32. That signal won’t be lost on the Russians, the Saudis, the UAE, Qatar and maybe even some Europeans.
  33. So here is what I think: this is a white supremacist administration prepared to strengthen the American military and homeland security, but weaken the rest of its bureaucracy and get rid of as many multilateral international commitments as possible while seeking financial benefits for its friends and family.
  34. As Lenin asked, what is to be done?
  35. Within the U.S., you will have heard about the popular resistance to Trump, the institutional barriers to his unilateral exercise of presidential power, and his retreats from some of his worst ideas: moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, preventing the Chinese from accessing their military installations in the South China Sea, withdrawing from NAFTA, and befriending Putin and Kim Jong-il.
  36. He’ll back down on his immigration ban for Muslim countries as well, because the courts have seen it for what it is: an unconstitutional discrimination based on religion.
  37. There is every sign that when push comes to shove, Trump often backs down.
  38. I therefore hope that the international community will also develop the courage to push back on key issues.
  39. The Dutch election, while was less unequivocal than I would like, was nevertheless a good first signal of European resistance to racist populism.
  40. The critical next step is to defeat Marine Le Pen at the end of April, or at worst in May.
  41. That done, the Germans seem to be on track to choose between two eminently acceptable candidates of the center left and center right.
  42. I still hope Europe will not allow the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to suffer the same fate as TPP. It is, after all, a bilateral deal between the EU and U.S. If you stand up for it, Washington will need to rethink.
  43. I hope Europe will maintain its sanctions on Russia and insist on implementation of the Minsk 2 agreement in Ukraine.
  44. I hope Europe and Asia will stand up for the Paris climate change agreement, monitoring any moves by the Administration to vitiate its implementation.
  45. I even hope Europe will take on the mantle of defense of liberal democratic and economic ideals, giving the Americans some time to sort out our obviously parlous domestic political situation. Chancellor Merkel last week did a good job of this.
  46. Trump is a foe to those of us who have enjoyed the enormous benefits of the post-World War II order.
  47. It is time for us to stand up to be counted.




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Why collude?

FBI Director Comey yesterday confirmed once again that Russia aimed to undermine the integrity of the US election process, to disfavor Hillary Clinton, and to favor Donald Trump. With so much already established, it is natural to assume that the Bureau’s investigation will also confirm that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

I wonder. Putin’s objectives were congruent with Trump’s. What purpose would be served by collusion? A wink and a nod might well suffice. While Trump campaign officials like Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page (as well as now Secretary of State Tillerson) had clear and suspicious connections to Russia, it is going to be difficult to prove collusion unless there are written records of their conversations with Moscow.

Wire taps are still possible, because the National Security Agency may have been focused on Russians the campaign officials were talking with. Emails or other records of the conversations are also possible. But I wouldn’t bank on it. Russian tradecraft is good enough. They really didn’t need much guidance from the Trump campaign. They had emails they hacked from both the Republican and Democratic campaigns. They had easy access to Wikileaks. It didn’t take genius, or collusion, to know which emails to publicize to favor the Republican candidate.

So what we could end up with from this enormous scandal is an equivocal outcome. Yes, the Russians interfered to favor one candidate over the other. But no one did anything illegal or even immoral on the American side of the equation. All they did was run the best campaign they could under the circumstances. No one is going to fault Trump for that. Russophilia is now so widespread among Republicans that Putin’s enthusiasm for his candidacy will raise few eyebrows among Trump supporters.

What they should fault Trump for is the barrage of lies he has rained from his Twitter account and from the White House spokesman, as well as his deplorable treatment of our British and German allies. No president I can recall has dissed London and Berlin so definitively. Trump accused the Brits of colluding with Obama to spy on the Trump campaign. He refused to shake Chancellor Merkel’s hand and tried to drag her into his petty fantasies by suggesting that Obama wire tapped them both. These are the shabby techniques of a second rate salesman. It is hard to picture a Trump visit to either London or Berlin anytime soon.

Nor is it easy to picture a visit to Moscow or a meeting anyplace with Putin that doesn’t raise more questions than it answers. Until the FBI and Congressional investigations have reached definitive conclusions, my guess is that Trump’s bromance with Putin is on ice. Any deal short of an unconditional Russian withdrawal from Ukraine and Syria (with no quid pro quo) would make us all wonder what Putin got in return, further undermining a presidency that is already foundering.

But foundering is not yet failing. The only people who can do anything about Trump at this point are Republicans in Congress and judges in the federal courts. The latter are already showing their spunk. But the Congress is still lining up to salute the President, who they hope will cut taxes for rich people and regulations on commerce and industry. With some notable exceptions in the Senate, the Republican members care little about Russia. Many even admire Putin’s autocratic ways. You don’t have to collude if your objectives are the same.

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Seriously but not literally

Donald Trump’s first budget proposal is like his tweets: intentionally exaggerated to attract attention. There is no way this budget will pass Congress, where it gores as many Republicans as it does Democrats. The boost in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs–three of the more amply funded and least efficient US government agencies–aims to please those terrified of the threat from what Trump wants to call violent Islamic extremism, which kills fewer Americans than lightening strikes.

Trump is also preparing for the negotiation with Congress by anchoring his budget on the extreme right, knowing the outcome will be somewhere in the middle. This is classic Trump negotiating behavior, and has potential to gain him support from the Tea Party Republicans. They are none too happy with Ryancare, which amends but does not repeal or replace Obamacare, no matter how often Republicans repeat that phrase.

At the State Department, a 29% cut in a single year will pretty much devastate normal diplomacy, even if the Secretary of State will never find his wings clipped. State has a lot of fixed costs in embassies where the heat, air conditioning, and guard forces need to be fully funded. It also has salaries that need to be paid, as well as routine allowances, moving costs, tuition for kids whose parents are stationed abroad, and the costs of services to other US government agencies resident in our embassies.

I had 36 of those when I was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires in Rome. Ninety per cent of the personnel there were either from other agencies or servicing them, including a large contingent from the Defense Department. They would scream loudly if their services were cut by 29%, never mind the 50% or more that is likely because of the fixed costs.

Yesterday in Japan Secretary Tillerson justified the State Department cuts this way:

…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.

This is a ridiculous way to justify a first-year cut, especially as Trump has just deployed another 1000 troops to Syria and Tillerson himself is threatening war against North Korea. We face at least another decade of war and post-war transition in the Middle East (not only Syria but also Yemen, Iraq, and Libya). We can expect South Korea to handle most of the post-war requirements on the Korean Peninsula, but the notion that no burdens will fall to the US is not credible. Besides, other countries follow those who lead, not those who cut back.

In one sense, we shouldn’t worry too much: it isn’t all going to happen. Congress won’t let Meals on Wheels and other social welfare programs die, though it may well allow the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to go under or get starvation budgets. State and USAID should do better than that, as they have stronger constituencies in Congress.

But even if State gets back much of its money, our diplomatic corps and foreign assistance workers will suffer demoralization. They already weren’t in high spirits during the last of the Obama years, as the President let Syria go to hell, the pivot to the Asia Pacific faltered, and whole continents were ignored (especially Africa and Latin America). For good reasons, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development believe they are in the front lines of defending American interests globally: they issue visas, try to get foreign governments on board with whatever the President wants, and ensure that America participates in efforts to reduce poverty and discourage extremism worldwide.

Besides the cuts to State and AID, many domestic cuts will affect America’s role in the world. The 31% cut to EPA is intended in part to hamstring its efforts on global warming. The 6% cut at the Department of Energy will likely have that impact too. The Treasury cut (4%) apparently includes its important foreign assistance, which is vital to helping other countries set up Finance Ministries that can conduct serious growth-promoting macroeconomic policies and cooperate with the US in law enforcement, including economic sanctions.

The net effect is this: even if corrected in Congress, the Trump Administration budget announced yesterday will have a devastating impact on America’s influence in the world, over and above the disrespect in which the President himself is held in many countries. It should be taken seriously but not literally. America is not going to be great again on the global stage under this administration.


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Kosovo’s security force is an opportunity

Kosovo’s Albanian leadership–President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the Parliament–have decided to proceed with building the country’s national army, even though their proposition lacks Serb support and has made at least some in NATO and the US embassy uncomfortable. The impatience is easy to understand: Serb refusal to go along has blocked this move for years, even as pressure to complete Kosovo’s sovereignty has grown in the Albanian part of the electorate. NATO isn’t going to stick around forever, though its commitment to Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will remain vital to both.

What about the wisdom of this move?

I would certainly have preferred the conversion to a serious security force be undertaken with Serb support, or at least abstention. That’s what Pristina has been trying to do for several years. But Belgrade is opposed and controls enough Serb votes inside the Kosovo parliament to block a constitutional amendment, even if some Kosovo Serbs could be convinced. Patience has not won the day. Now the Albanian political leadership is proceeding with what we call in negotiation theory their “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” (BATNA).

The proposal to move forward is legislative, not constitutional. I won’t comment on the legalities–that’s not my forte.

The outcome of this maneuver depends in part on Belgrade’s BATNA. Serbia will certainly appeal to the international community to block the Albanians from proceeding. It will likely use the votes it controls in Kosovo’s parliament to block other legislation. It may stiffen its resistance to re-integration of the Serb-majority north of the country. It could even move tanks to the boundary/border and threaten intervention if there is any harm to Serbs in Kosovo, though that would set up an unwelcome confrontation with NATO.

None of this will stop the Albanians I imagine. It will also be counter-productive, as it will make it harder for the Albanian political leadership to back down.

I’ll offer an alternative, one entirely within the capacity of the Belgrade and Pristina politicians to embark upon.

The kind of army Kosovo requires depends entirely on the threat environment it faces. If the threat from Serbia were removed, Kosovo could opt for a small, mobile armed force designed for international deployments. It would no longer need a ground force capable of resisting a Serbian incursion, at least for a few days. Instead Kosovo could begin to pay back an international community that has devoted massive resources to it.

The way to remove the Serbian threat is diplomatic recognition of Kosovo, in exchange for that smaller and more mobile Kosovo security force. If diplomatic recognition is a bridge too far, allowing Kosovo into the United Nations might suffice, but then exchange of diplomatic representatives with the rank of ambassador would still have to follow.

Neither of these moves is likely right now. Serbia will hold a presidential election April 2, with a possible second round April 16. Kosovo is not due for parliamentary elections until 2018, though they could come earlier. If they don’t, the period between April and December would be the best available time for a deal on the security forces and diplomatic recognition of some sort. The politicians in Pristina and Belgrade will know better than I do whether this is in the realm of the possible.

Failing a deal, we can expect heightened tensions, which are all too apparent throughout the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. The Russians are doing their best to make things worse, by backing secessionist moves by Milorad Dodik’s Republika Srpska in Bosnia and undermining prospects for successful government formation in Macedonia. Washington, paralyzed by a messy political transition and lack of clarity about its foreign policy, is contributing to uncertainty. Brussels, preoccupied with Brexit as well as important elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany is not doing any better.

Kosovo’s small security force is not an insoluble issue. But it will take a bit of imagination and risk-taking to resolve it in a way that satisfies at least some of the aspirations of both Serbs and Albanians. The time for courageous political leadership is nigh.

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The North Korea conundrum

While America can’t seem to get enough of issues like healthcare and Trump’s Russia connection, North Korea is getting precious few electrons. It deserves more. The hermit kingdom, as we used to call it, is now a nuclear power developing ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan if not yet the US. President Obama famously told then President-elect Trump that Pyongyang should be at the top of his to-do list.

That hasn’t happened. President Trump has demonstrated more interest in the cancellation of his erstwhile TV reality show than the launch of multiple missiles into the Sea of Japan. Except for a conversation with Japan’s Prime Minister and deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, there has been precious little public sign of White House interest in the issue.

That might be the good news. The last thing the world needs is one of Trump’s rapid fire decisions. Josh Rogin, who is smart and well-informed about these things, says the National Security Council deputies and principals are seized with the issues. They reportedly don’t like Pyongyang’s suggestion that it could stop the missile tests if the US abandoned its military exercises with South Korea, which the North regards as hostile.

Washington will naturally look to Beijing to bring additional pressure on Pyongyang. The Chinese have, however, already cut their coal imports from North Korea as well as many exports to their ill-behaved neighbor. Beijing hesitates to go further because the last thing it wants is the North Korean regime to collapse, which could send refugees fleeing into China and precipitate reunification with a South Korea allied with the US.

There aren’t a lot of other good options out there. Pyongyang has thousands of missiles and artillery pieces already pointed at Seoul. Any belligerent US or South Korean moves could trigger a horrendous barrage. Destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad, as Ash Carter and Bill Perry proposed more than 10 years ago, has gotten far more difficult, because Pyongyang has made its missiles mobile. The US could agree to talk with the North Koreans, something candidate Trump suggested he would want to do as president. But it is not clear what such talks could do to improve the situation. Yielding to them now would confirm in Kim Jong-un’s perspective that missile tests get attention.

Regime survival is Pyongyang’s top priority. Possession of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles is arguably the best guarantee possible that the US and South Korea will not risk war. Even converting the armistice that ended the Korean War into a peace treaty with American, North Korean, and South Korean signatures would not match that, in particular for a regime committed to extreme self-reliance.

This is not a pretty picture: a real threat to American allies in the Pacific and very few options to manage it. Americans elected Donald Trump to deal with such a conundrum. Let’s see how he does.

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Yesterday it seemed likely to me that there was some sort of truth behind Donald Trump’s allegation that the Obama Administration had wiretapped people at Trump Tower. I still think that possible, but authoritative denials have been fast and furious. The most important comes former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:

There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, as a candidate, or against his campaign.

When asked if he could confirm or deny a FISA court order existed for Trump Tower, Clapper said:

I can deny it.

This still leaves open the possibility of a wiretap directed against Russian agents, not the Trump Tower or its personnel, that happened to record conversations with people there, but let’s assume that is not the case.

What does it tell us if the allegation is completely false?

Nothing new I’m afraid. The main conclusion to be drawn is that President Trump is unreliable: a liar who finds it impossible to control his penchant for telling untruths, especially those that serve his purposes. This one did. It distracted attention from the important issue of whether there was coordination or cooperation between his campaign and Moscow. He is now insisting that any Congressional investigation of that issue also look into the wiretapping allegation.

I don’t have a problem with that. A definitive answer to all these questions is what any citizen should be looking for. I think it preferable that an independent commission do the investigation rather than a committee of the Congress, even a specially constituted one. But any body that is independent of the executive branch and has access to all the relevant materials will satisfy most of us.

In the meanwhile, we have no choice but to endure a government thoroughly compromised by its leadership’s unreliability. We’ve got a president who lies habitually, an Attorney General who lied to the Senate about contacts with Russian officials and has consistently misrepresented his racist career, a Secretary of State who has said nothing in public for weeks even as world events demand his attention and public posture, a Department of Homeland Security that has repeatedly postponed the president’s revised travel ban partly because its own staff can’t find any way to justify it, several cabinet officials haphazardly trying to dismantle the regulatory apparatus their departments are responsible for implementing, and a Republican majority in Congress that can’t figure out how to get rid of Obamacare. While promising to make America great (again), the Trump Administration is about as close to collapse into incoherence as any I can remember.

Moscow has good reason for delight. American credibility is in sharp decline. The Western democratic model is far less attractive today than even a couple of months ago. Trump’s unreliability is proving even more useful to President Putin than any friendship a more competent Trump Administration might have offered. We are in a tailspin. No telling yet where it will end.

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