Europe/Americas update: November 7-8 2017

EUROPE

RUSSIA/UKRAINE

Ukraine is apparently thinking about cutting all diplomatic ties with Russia, a move that the Kremlin told reporters on Wednesday would not be in either country’s interests.

LITHUANIA

Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis expects NATO to agree to permanently station anti-aircraft defenses in the Baltics and/or Poland at its 2018 summit.

HUNGARY

Viktor Orbán’s fixation on George Soros continues apace:

Hungarians have two more weeks to respond to a seven-question “national consultation” survey mailed to them by their government. The issue at hand is one of great importance to the Hungarian electorate — immigration and refugee quotas — but the government has come under fire from human rights groups and European Union officials who say they are engaging in “hatemongering”  propaganda.

Instead of making E.U. policy and policymakers the subjects of the survey, the government has made Jewish and Hungarian American billionaire philanthropist George Soros the chief villain of a conspiracy against Hungary. The survey questions refer to a so-called Soros plan, which was allegedly created by Soros and E.U. leaders in closed-door meetings in Brussels to force all E.U. member states to abolish refugee quotas and take down border protection walls.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the survey questions are at best dealing in half-truths, and at some points they’re outright lying about the European Union’s–and Soros’s–views on refugees.

GERMANY

Germany’s coalition talks may have made a bit of progress on Tuesday, when Christian Lindner said that his Free Democrats are prepared to accept smaller income tax cuts than they had previously been after. Presumably that moves them closer to the Greens, though there are still many significant issues outstanding between them.

ITALY

Guess who’s back:

He’s 81 years old and can’t run for office because of a tax fraud conviction, but Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s three-time former premier, is again playing kingmaker in his country’s political arena.

After a long period of relative quiet on the political scene, Berlusconi has been spearheading a center-right coalition that hopes to ride momentum from a weekend election victory in Sicily to a return to national power in a parliamentary vote early next year.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste, but how this guy still has supporters is really something I’ll never understand. Oh, wait, now I do.

SPAIN

Political scientists David Lublin explains why, despite polling showing pro-union parties overall outperforming pro-secession parties, Catalonia’s electoral system is designed to work to the secessionists’ advantage. For one thing, the more pro-union Barcelona province has about 14 fewer regional parliament seats than it should according to population. For another, the way seats are allocated according to vote counts favors the secessionist parties:

Catalonia uses the common d’Hondt formula of proportional representation. The formula’s bias toward large parties aided separatists, who combined to support the Together for Yes (JxSí) coalition. The smaller pro-separatist, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) also won seats. Four non-separatist parties captured most of the remaining votes. The largest, the vehemently anti-separatist Citizens, had less than half of the support of Together for Yes.

Would this have been different under the Ste. Laguë formula, a less biased option? Yes, a simulated analysis shows that, despite Barcelona’s underrepresentation, secessionists would have had three fewer deputies under the Ste. Laguë formula, cutting their majority by two-thirds, from nine seats to three.

If Barcelona had as many deputies as it merits based on population, Ste. Laguë would have given separatist formations four fewer seats, leaving them with a wafer-thin one-seat majority. Defections from separatists suggest that the UDI vote would not have passed with a one-seat majority.

The secessionist parties failed to agree on a unity ticket for December’s vote, but with these built-in advantages it probably doesn’t matter.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Russia announced on Wednesday that it’s agreed to restructure roughly $3 billion in Venezuelan debt, which could be just enough to ensure that Nicolás Maduro’s government doesn’t default to international creditors as payments come due in the near future. Other international bondholders are expected to travel to Venezuela early next week to discuss restructuring another $50 billion, but US sanctions are going to make that process difficult–among other people, they’ve blacklisted the man in charge of the negotiation, Vice President Tareck El Aissamí.

CUBA

The Trump administration has issued a new set of travel restrictions for Cuba:

The package includes a blacklist of state-owned companies and entities, including shops and hotels.

Most US citizens travelling to the island will now have to go as part of organised tour groups.

The measures come as part of a partial rollback of ex-president Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba, as announced by President Trump in June.

UNITED STATES

Finally, take Donald Trump’s State Department. Please:

The US has lost more than half its career ambassadors and a significant proportion of other senior diplomats since Donald Trump took office, the head of the foreign service association has said.

Barbara Stephenson, a former ambassador to Panama and charge d’affaires in London, said that the top ranks of US diplomacy were being “depleted at dizzying speed”, and the state department was under “mounting threats”.

Stephenson pointed to a hiring freeze that has reduced the intake into the foreign service from 366 in 2016 to an expected 100 in 2018, and a cut in the number of promotions. She said the number of career ambassadors (professional diplomats rather than political appointees) was down 60% since January, while the number of career ministers, one rank below, has declined from 33 to 19.

“Were the US military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry,” Stephenson wrote in a message to members of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). “The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

Nobody is going to argue that the State Department isn’t in need of improvement. But while I know Wall Street always loves this kind of shit when it’s done at a private company, “gutting the place” is not the same thing as “reform.” At a very basic level, it’s hard to do any diplomacy if, you know, you’ve gotten rid of all your diplomats. And if you think there might be a connection between this administration’s often mind-boggling stupidity about the rest of the world and the fact that it’s choking the life out of the cabinet department that’s supposed know shit about the rest of the world…well, you might be on to something.

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One thought on “Europe/Americas update: November 7-8 2017

  1. Okay, this gets complicated. Tillerson seems to be slashing more or less blindly, driven by a Randian contempt for “bloated” government. It doesn’t help that, as head of Exxon, he only ever encountered State as at best an annoying complication, at worst an obstacle to Exxon doing as it pleased. He’ll probably continue to slash more or less blindly for as long as he’s there.

    Trump doesn’t care one way or the other; he has no understanding of what State does and no interest in it. His natural instinct is to do diplomacy himself or hand it to one of the very few people in his inner circle that he trusts. Jared Kushner is one, which is why he has such a ridiculously large portfolio. Jared’s in the dog house at the moment, but that may change.

    Trump avoids and ignores Tillerson a lot, which makes Tillerson angry and unhappy. But that doesn’t make Tillerson the good guy. He’s still determined to gut State. I imagine he thinks he’s “restructuring” to make it “leaner” or some such, but from outside it really looks like angry, purposeless flailing. If Tillerson quits he’ll be lauded by many as a principled dissident, but that will very much not be the case.

    Finally, Barbara Stephenson is head of AFSA and AFSA is being widely (if quietly) criticized as being spineless and unwilling to stand up to Tillerson or the current administration. All they’re doing, apparently, is standing on the sidelines and saying oh dear, oh dear. To be fair, it’s unclear how much AFSA could actually do. They’re a “professional association”, not a union, so they don’t have even the limited powers and protections that unions enjoy. So it’s not like they can call a strike or send their members into the streets or some such.
    On the other hand, they’ve never been very democratic — AFSA is dominated by a small, self-selecting clique of senior Foreign Service people — and there are murmurings that AFSA’s leadership would rather protect their own safe positions than defend the Foreign Service as a whole. This is real inside baseball stuff so I honestly don’t know.

    The sad thing is, State and (especially) the Foreign Service have needed a shakeup for a long time. The FS in particular is (IMO) poorly organized — super pipelined, super hierarchical. The life of a foreign service officer serving abroad is a weird mix of comfort and brutality, and often very isolated from the country they’re actually serving in. There was a LOT of discussion under Clinton and Kerry of what might be done to improve things. None of that is on the table — the current administration isn’t interested in actually fixing or improving State.

    Doug M.

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