Europe/Americas update: July 18-19 2018

EUROPE

John Feffer puts Donald Trump’s eventful European trip in the context of the global Euroskeptic movement:

Why on earth would Trump embark on this surrealistic misadventure in foreign policy? True, his first instinct seems to be to disrupt. His statements also reveal his preference for “strong” leaders over “weak.” Perhaps, as some intelligence community insiders claim, the Russian president even has some dirt with which to blackmail Trump.

In fact, Trump’s statements and actions on this European trip aren’t just his own idiosyncratic style. Trump’s erratic behavior reflects a very specific worldview. Trump is attacking Europe and siding with Russia for political — and not just personal — reasons.

EUROPEAN UNION

Targeted by Trump’s trade war, the European Union is working closely with China and Japan to try to maintain the existing global trade order:

The most obvious example came on Monday, the same day a stunned world watched Mr. Trump praise President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a competitor after having dismissed Europe as an economic “foe.” A few thousand miles away, in Beijing, the leaders of the European Union and China held a long-scheduled meeting of their own.

In the past, expectations for such meetings were low, given the conflicts on trade and human rights between the Europeans and the Chinese. But while those differences remain, this summit meeting produced an unusual joint declaration and a common commitment to keep the global system strong.

The next day, the Europeans traveled to Japan and signed the biggest free-trade agreement in history, just the sort of deal the Trump administration has criticized.

RUSSIA

Upon further reflection and after taking a whole bunch of political heat for even considering it, Trump has decided to graciously decline Vladimir Putin’s offer to make 12 GRU agents who have been indicted under the Mueller investigation available for questioning in return for Trump allowing Russian authorities to interrogate several US nationals. Among the people Putin wanted to interview was Michael McFaul, Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia.

Putin, meanwhile, says that “certain forces” in the US “are trying to disavow the results of the meeting in Helsinki” because they want to undermine US-Russia relations. This dovetails with Trump’s contention that Monday’s summit was a “great success” that his haters are trying to downplay:

First note the use of “enemy of the people” here by the sitting president of the United States to describe journalists, just a couple of weeks after a man shot up a newspaper office in Maryland. That’s really great. Second, what’s interesting about this is that other than the unsettling press conference it’s not at all clear that Trump and Putin actually accomplished anything. Obviously I wasn’t in the room with them, and neither was anybody else except for their interpreters, so I don’t know if they had some good talks about important issues or something. But if you’re going to claim the whole thing was a smashing success you ought to have something to, you know, show for it.

There is a counter-argument to be made against the “Trump is Putin’s lapdog” narrative that’s only been heightened since Monday. Trump’s military has bombed Russian mercenaries in Syria, has sent weapons to the Ukrainian government, has levied sanctions and adopted economic policies that have hurt the Russian oligarchs and the Russian economy, and has been complaining about Russia’s Nordstream-2 pipeline deal with Germany. Parts of this counter-argument require you to sort of squint at the facts in just the right way–the Syrian bombing was a response to a pro-government attack on the SDF, not a planned attack; Trump has also refused to implement anti-Russia sanctions passed by Congress; Trump’s criticism of Nordstream-2 seemed more like an excuse to complain about Angela Merkel than a well-thought-out critique–but the argument does exist nonetheless.

Back in Russia, Putin’s approval ratings appear to be dropping like a stone. Only 49 percent of respondents surveyed by Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation say they would vote for Putin for reelection today, down from 62 percent last month. What happened? Say it with me: austerity. Putin’s government announced right before the World Cup (talk about a news dump) that it would be raising the age at which people qualify to receive state pensions, from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. Only 9 percent of Russians surveyed support that decision.

MONTENEGRO

If you were looking for more evidence that we live in the dumbest possible timeline, the latest Trump fiasco should help. He’s picked a fight with Montenegro–Montenegro!–a former Yugoslav republic and current NATO member of a little over 620,000 people, to prove a point about NATO. In an interview with bow-tie wearing dipshit Tucker Carlson on Fox News on Tuesday, Trump suggested that Montenegro might start World War III:

Asked by host Tucker Carlson in a conversation about Nato’s common defence policy: “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” the US president replied: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people … They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in world war three.”

First of all, Donald Trump has sent people’s sons and daughters off to die all over the world–to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Niger, and Somalia. If he sent Tucker Carlson’s son off to die in Montenegro what would be the difference? And anyway, Tucker would undoubtedly continue to kiss his ass every night on TV. Second, you’ll have to provide me with incontrovertible video evidence before I’ll believe that Donald Trump has any idea where Montenegro is or that he knows anything about its people.

Incredibly, because he’s inexplicably the president of the United States, the Montenegrin government has had to respond to this giant bag of pus by insisting that it has no plans to start World War III and actually wants to be a stabilizing force in the western Balkans. Amazingly, this is actually the second time that Trump has managed to insult Montenegro for no apparent reason. Remember this?

That was Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković Trump shoved out of the way there.

This hand-wringing is all about NATO and its article 5 provision for the common defense. There’s an important discussion to be had about whether NATO should even exist and yes, article 5 is part of that discussion. But the alliance only obligates members to come to the aid of member states who have been attacked, so even if Montenegro’s out of control aggression somehow started a war it wouldn’t trigger the alliance. And the NATO treaty doesn’t actually specify what form that aid has to take, so Trump wouldn’t be obligated to send American soldiers to Montenegro even if it were attacked and article 5 were invoked. Very few people in Washington are prepared to have the deeper conversation about NATO’s utility in 2018, but there’s absolutely no chance of it happening now that Trump has the whole political establishment reflexively defending the alliance from his boorishness.

SLOVENIA

Janez Jansa, head of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), says he does not have enough support to form a government. The SDS emerged from last month’s election as the largest party in the Slovenian parliament, but the SDS’s hard-right positions on issues like immigration have alienated other parties.. The second-place finisher in last month’s election, the List of Marjan Šarec, has been holding informal talks to see if it could cobble together a coalition, but those have failed as well. Slovenian President Borut Pahor will likely report to parliament on Monday that he cannot designate a prime minister. That will trigger a new two week window for negotiations among the parties. If nothing happens then the country could be heading for a new election this fall.

HUNGARY

The EU has referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice over its refusal to follow the alliance’s asylum and immigration policies. The Hungarian government has been indefinitely detaining asylum seekers and is returning migrants to their home countries without ensuring their safety. If things continue to escalate there’s a chance the EU could levy financial penalties on Budapest.

GREECE

The ongoing diplomatic tension between Greece and Russia continues to worsen. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reportedly canceled a September trip to Greece after the Greek government expelled two Russian diplomats last week who were accused of fomenting protests against the deal Athens reached with Skopje to change Macedonia’s name to “the Republic of North Macedonia.” Moscow would like to disrupt that naming deal because the resolution of that dispute will enable North (?) Macedonia to join NATO and the EU.

SPAIN

The Spanish government is no longer seeking the extradition of Catalan separatist leader and former regional president Carles Puigdemont. Which is probably good, because the German government has refused to extradite him to face potential charged of inciting a rebellion. Berlin has indicated that it might extradite Puigdemont to face lesser charges, but Madrid has decided to drop the whole thing.

FRANCE

A security aide to French President Emmanuel Macron apparently decided to cosplay as a riot cop and beat up protesters on May Day:

You can certainly see why Macron hired him.

UNITED KINGDOM

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to give a speech on Friday wherein she’ll demand that the EU get serious about solving the post-Brexit Northern Ireland border issue. In this case “serious” means abandoning the fallback position that Northern Ireland should remain under EU rules if no other acceptable deal can be negotiated. This is somewhat amazing since, for one thing, May herself hasn’t gotten serious about Northern Ireland and instead is talking about magic customs technology woo allowing for instant border checks. For another thing, the tone of this speech reflects May’s ongoing belief that the EU needs to make concessions to the UK, despite the fact that the EU has made it pretty clear that it’s not prepared to concede anything to London. May apparently still believes she has some leverage in the Brexit process when it’s abundantly clear she doesn’t.

But the biggest issue here is that May’s insistence on pulling a rabbit out of her hat to solve what is an unsolvable Northern Irish border problem–basically, it’s a question of how to keep Northern Ireland both fully in and entirely apart from the EU at the same time–could wind up undermining 20 years of effort that’s gone into achieving peace in Northern Ireland. The EU and the free movement of goods and services across the Irish border has been instrumental in easing tensions there. May’s stance here all but guarantees the return of a hard border. Northern Ireland’s political situation has been looking tenuous anyway, and this will only add to the tension.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Donald Trump’s recent interest in invading Venezuela is pretty hard to justify even by typical US regime change standards:

Maduro’s government has surely committed human rights abuses. But, so have many U.S. allies in the region, including Honduras — which produces many of the migrants the Trump administration has sought to prevent from entering the United States — without generating any calls for regime change in Washington.

Labeling Venezuela as a “security threat” borders on the sanctimonious at best, because none of these factors directly imperils the United States’ national security. And, moreover, justifying intervention in the name of democratic reform is also highly inappropriate when the government was democratically elected.

NICARAGUA

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega commemorated the 39th anniversary of the 1979 revolution that brought him to power on Thursday by celebrating his military’s bloody repression of the ongoing protest movement demanding his resignation. At least four people were killed early Tuesday morning when Nicaraguan security forces assaulted a pro-rebel neighborhood in the city of Masaya, south of Managua. Add them to the total number killed since anti-Ortega protests began in April, a number that some sources have put at over 300. The intensified government crackdown in recent days seems to have had its effect, as protesters are clearing out of the streets to escape the violence.

MEXICO

Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he may “do a [trade] deal separately with Mexico and we’ll negotiate with Canada at a later time,” which would seem to indicate that he’s ready to withdraw from NAFTA but who knows.

CANADA

The third party in NAFTA, Canada, says it’s preparing to levy retaliatory sanctions against the US if the Trump administration imposes duties on Canadian auto parts.

UNITED STATES

Laura Rozen says that Trump’s foreign policy/national security team is scrambling to figure out what the hell is going on after the Helsinki summit:

Haley’s speech was just the latest example of a growing chasm between the public stances of top administration officials such as Haley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and US intelligence chiefs, and the policy preferences and pronouncements made by Trump himself. The result has been extended uncertainty for both US government officials themselves, as well as American allies and adversaries, on what the US policy going forward is on a range of issues, from Syria to how to “push back” on Iran in the region to possible US cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism and the so-called Islamic State.

That confusion across the US government in the aftermath of Helsinki was evident this week, as Putin briefed Russian diplomats today on “verbal agreements” he said he and Trump had reached, while the White House said no commitments had yet been made. The State Department said it was assessing three Russian proposals, and US military officials said they had received no new instructions.

Finally, Branko Marcetic pleads for a little moderation in the language commentators are using to describe both Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and Trump’s behavior in Helsinki:

More alarmingly, last week’s events have led to widespread, blithe proclamations that the hacking of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails was not only an “attack” on the scale of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, but that it constituted an act of war. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.) called for a massive cyberattack that would “cripple everything” in Russia in response, a disproportionate escalation. After all, the Kremlin is accused of spear phishing to release embarrassing information about a politician; Cohen is calling for the hacking of infrastructure to create death and destruction among the Russian population. One piece, appearing in Politico, made vague demands for a “call to arms” and a “fight” against what was termed the “evil genius” of Russia.

This kind of overheated rhetoric is perilous.

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