World update: January 18 2018



At least four people–three of them civilians–were killed on Thursday during an exchange of mortar and gunfire across the Kashmiri line of control. Both Pakistani and Indian forces accused the other side of shooting first.


India, meanwhile, tested a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday, and while your immediate inclination might be to wonder what this does for the India-Pakistan conflict, the message in this test was intended for Beijing, not Islamabad. India doesn’t need an ICBM to hit anything in Pakistan, but this new weapon just so happens to bring most of China into India’s missile range.

In its 2017 annual report, Human Rights Watch accuses India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of promoting a “Hindu supremacy” that has led to attacks against religious minorities, including Muslims. According to HRW, the government has failed to protect those communities and to properly investigate the attacks. There have been several attacks against Muslims suspected of slaughtering cows for meat by “cow vigilantes,” with authorities then charging the victims of the attacks for killing the cows instead of charging the vigilantes for, you know, the vigilantism.


Rodrigo Duterte wants parliament to grant autonomy to the country’s Muslim community in Mindanao, in order to preserve a precarious peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The government’s ceasefire with the MILF is dependent on passage of what’s called the “Bangsamoro Basic Law,” the autonomy measure in question. For that peace deal to fall apart now, at a time when extremists on Mindanao are still trying to build an ISIS affiliate, could be disastrous.


Admiral Harry Harris, the head of US Pacific Command, told an audience at an Indian security conference on Thursday that he sees China as a “disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific.” The US, India, and Japan have been circling around a tighter anti-China alliance for some time now, and they may include Australia as part of the team as well. It surely sounds odd for an American official to describe another country as disruptive as we approach year 2 of the Trump administration, but the rise of China and relative decline of American power is leading toward some significant shifts in international affairs that are likely to make the world less stable, at least in the short term.


The New York Times looks at the rise of oil smuggling in East Asia, as oil sanctions hit North Korea and Pyongyang turns increasingly to illegal means to get around those restrictions:

Trafficking on the high seas has become what these officials regard as a pernicious subversion of the sanctions. Though the frequency of smuggling is difficult to estimate, they fear it is undermining efforts to thwart the nuclear weapons ambitions of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, through economic pressure. The trafficking has also strained relations between the United States and North Korea’s two largest trading partners, China and Russia.



At least four Nigerien soldiers were killed on Thursday in a suspected Boko Haram raid on a village in the country’s southeastern Diffa region. The attackers also made off with several armored vehicles. Given the location and the nature of the attack, if this was Boko Haram it was likely the ISIS-sanctioned, Abu Musab al-Barnawi-led branch of Boko Haram, which generally operates more in the Lake Chad region while the Abubakar Shekau-led branch sticks more to the Maiduguri area. The Barnawi branch of the group is also believed to be more capable of relatively sophisticated operations while the Shekau branch is limited to basic suicide attacks.


Somali Marine General Saiid Aden Yusuf was shot and killed in Mogadishu on Thursday by a colonel on his own staff. It’s not clear what the motive was.


Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced on Thursday that the country will hold a “free, credible, fair, and indisputable” election by the end of June at the latest. If the vote actually is all of those things, or at least if it appears to be all of those things, it will go a long way to improving Zimbabwe’s ability to obtain badly needed international assistance. It could, for example, open the door to Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth, from which it was suspended in 2002, and that could mean significant aid from the UK–which is getting desperate to make some new international friends. There’s nothing in Mnangagwa’s history that marks him as a democratic reformer, but he does have some leeway here–the opposition is so disjointed that he won’t need to cheat to win the election.



Ukraine’s parliament passed a measure on Thursday that calls for the government to get serious about ending the country’s frozen civil war:

Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday passed a bill that aims to reintegrate the eastern territories currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists, and goes as far as to declare support for taking them back by military force if necessary.


The bill describes the areas in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as “temporarily occupied” by “aggressor country” Russia. President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the new bill, saying it would help restore control of the east by “political and diplomatic means.”

Russia and the Donbas rebels have already responded, saying that the bill effectively kills the Minsk Agreement that’s supposed to serve as a roadmap to peace. And indeed the bill doesn’t refer to Minsk and says nothing about the concessions Minsk requires Kiev to make, like autonomy for eastern provinces and amnesty for the rebels. It also extends Kiev’s blockade on the separatist provinces and rejects any “official” documents issued by the separatists other than birth and death certificates. But what’s particularly provocative here is the description of Russia as an “aggressor.”


The Hungarian government has apparently had an arrest warrant out on Sebastian Gorka, over a gun charge, since before the 2016 election. I mention this only to note once again how much class Donald Trump has brought to the White House in his all-too-brief time in office.


Kind of like a barnacle stuck to the ship of state, Silvio Berlusconi refuses to wander off into retirement and leave Italy alone. The center-right coalition he leads is likely to be in the best position to form a government after the country’s March 4 general election, and Berlusconi has let it be known that he’d be willing to serve again as prime minister if that’s what the Italian people want. Berlusconi is barred from holding office until 2019 over a tax fraud conviction, but that ban could be lifted by the European Court of Human Rights, which, uh, maybe “human rights” doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. Anyway Berlusconi is exactly who should be running Italy, and frankly he and Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin should just split the planet between them and run the whole thing. It’s what we all deserve.


The big European news of the day was the long-awaited Sandurst summit between French President Trajan Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Mr. Bean Theresa May, wherein the two leaders of the two countries that still think they’re world powers talked about the great issues of the day. They reached a number of agreements, the first also being the easiest: Britain agreed to fork over £44.5 million to help France keep the riffraff from crossing the English Channel at Calais, while both countries agreed on changes to the way would-be migrants are processed at the crossing point. The two also concluded agreements on post-Brexit security cooperation both in Europe and in Mali, where the UK is expected to contribute to the G5 Sahel military force that France has been trying to get off the ground. Macron also agreed to loan the Bayeux Tapestry, the 70 yard long 11th century work that depicts William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings and that has never left France in its entire history, to the UK in 2022.

Think about this: of the leaders of the four major “Western” powers, Emmanuel Macron is the best-positioned. America is led by Donald Trump, so enough said there. Germany’s Angela Merkel might still not make it to another term as chancellor if she can’t secure a coalition deal with the Social Democrats. Theresa May could at any moment try to, I don’t know, plug her cell phone’s power cord into her eye or something. Macron, meanwhile, is riding a wave of newfound popularity for some reason, and he doesn’t have to worry about another election for a while yet. Who would’ve thought it would come to this?

Macron is also, it should be noted, a bit torn between his deep desire to be the Glorious Pan-European Leader Of The 21st Century and his actual need to be president of France. That’s why he tried to encourage the UK to remain in the European Union while also making it clear that if they’re out, they’re out–and specifically, that all those financial giants currently based in London might want to really think hard about relocating to, say, Paris, if they want to continue to be based in the EU.


Separatist parties are now asking the regional parliament’s rules committee, which they control, to allow Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan separatist leaders currently in Belgium to evade prosecution to be allowed to vote by proxy. This would potentially open the door to Puigdemont serving as regional president even though he’s not, physically speaking, actually in the region. It will also lead to a certain court challenge from Madrid. Voting by webcast or Skype has apparently already been ruled out.



A new Gallup poll finds that–and you’ll want to hold on to your hat here because it’s a stunner–people really don’t like Donald Trump:

Global confidence in US leadership has fallen to a new low, and the country now ranks below China in worldwide approval ratings, according to a new Gallup poll.


The survey of opinion in 134 countries showed a record collapse in approval for the US role in the world, from 48% under Obama to 30% after one year of Donald Trump – the lowest level Gallup has recorded since beginning its global leadership poll over a decade ago.


The result comes after a separate Gallup survey found that Trump reaches the first anniversary of his inauguration with the lowest average approval rating of any elected president in his first year.

The biggest declines in America’s stature have come in Western Europe, Australia, and the Americas, North and South.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then I imagine there’s a pretty good chance that you’re thinking something like “what took everybody so long?” right now. Other than the introduction of Trump’s own repulsive personality, it’s not like much has actually changed for US foreign policy in any practical sense. But while many of us would agree that the world could do with a little less “American leadership,” replacing American hegemony with Chinese hegemony isn’t really trading up. More ominously, this unmanaged and haphazard shift from a largely unipolar world to a multipolar one, with China and Russia both emerging as peer competitors to the US, could lead us all into a big old great power shooting war if we’re not careful.

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