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The MacGuffin Presidency

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As many Americans get prepared for the End of Times on January 20th with the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump and even larger swaths of people around the world are inspired by the eloquent dire warnings of Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, it might be time for a single lone voice to offer a revelation: it may be big news that Donald Trump is going to be President; but it is far bigger news that the Trump Presidency is going to be the biggest MacGuffin in the history of televised action.

So get your popcorn ready, world, and remember the most important thing of all: that while a MacGuffin is usually effective in keeping the plot moving forward and maintaining your emotional peak investment, in the end it is also always intrinsically lacking any real meaning at all.

To prove this let us take and dissect several announcements that have all gone intensively viral across the web in recent weeks:

1. Trump fires all Ambassadors and Special Envoys, ordering them out by inauguration day.

The reality of this is more about being strictly rigid with the technical rule that has always been in place rather than being radically authoritarian with long-established tradition. Political appointees, which Ambassadors and Special Envoys are, usually expect to be replaced whenever one President leaves and another one enters the Oval Office, especially when that change also involves a switch in political party for the incoming President. In the past, many former holders of the Oval Office have allowed relatively slight extensions for such people to leave. What Trump has done is break with that relatively modern flexible interpretation of the rule, choosing instead to follow the actual rule in place to the letter by telling the political appointees over a month in advance that January 20th would be their final day to serve. It is also important to note that regardless of the presence or employment status of any Ambassador or Special Envoy, every single American embassy around the world has someone called the Deputy Chief of Mission. This person is almost without question a career Foreign Service Official specifically suited and experienced with running the everyday affairs of an Embassy while it undergoes the transition of a new incoming Ambassador. So the intimation that Trump is ‘firing’ all ambassadors and leaving our foreign missions in chaos is simply wrong.

2. House brings back the Holman rule allowing them to reduce an individual civil service or political appointee’s salary to $1, effectively firing them by amendment to any piece of legislation. We now know why they wanted names and positions of people in Energy and State.

The Holman Rule actually goes all the way back to 1876 and does indeed allow lawmakers to cut the pay of individual federal workers down to $1. This viral coverage is almost universally tagged to the idea that it is a Republican attempt to be able to single out, for example, climate change scientists, for financial intimidation: if you de facto eliminate people’s earnings they will have no choice but to depart from that employment and seek wages elsewhere. Therefore, the huge outcry with this so-called reimplementation of the Holman Rule is that it is going to basically ‘de-science’ whatever the Republican Congress does not like. All of this sounds horrifically ominous and unjust. It also happens to be hyperbolic melodrama as it leaves out one critical aspect of the process: under the Holman Rule, any such amendment against an individual cannot be an arbitrary decision. Rather, the amendment in question has to face a vote from the entire United States Congress – the House of Representatives AND the Senate – and the vote must achieve a majority affirmation in order to be in effect. As we have already seen with the in-coming Congress, even though it is ‘controlled’ by Republicans, the Grand Ole Party has shown itself to be remarkably NON-unified on most issues and has not been successful in achieving majority decisions, even on the issues they were supposed to be united on. The Holman Rule is no such issue and therefore the likelihood of this ever being successfully engineered is extremely low.

3. The US Senate schedules 6 simultaneous hearings on cabinet nominees and triple-books those hearings with Trump’s first press conference in months and an ACA budget vote, effectively preventing any concentrated coverage or protest.

This story has already been slightly deflated as 1/3 of those hearings have already been moved to different days. Ironically, this has drawn derisive anger from the right as ‘having caved’ to Congressional Democrats and proving the majority party has ‘no spine.’ So much for the characterization of Congressional Republicans being some form of neo-Dark Side army from Star Wars mythology, haughtily strutting about and chuckling at the impotent mewlings of progressives. In addition, scheduling a press conference on the same day as tumultuous confirmation hearings is not only NOT atypical, it is political PR 101: create news where you DO control the narrative if you are worried things could be happening elsewhere in which the narrative is largely out of your control. There can be no argument that Trump appointee confirmation hearings are going to be a circus beyond all circuses, with people clearly using the opportunity to turn it into their own specific platforms and personal soapboxes. That is the nature of modern-day confirmation hearings. It happened with Obama. It happened with W. It happened with Clinton. So, the decision by the Trump team to create a ‘political diversion’ by finally offering up the President-elect in a news conference (something he admittedly seems loathe to do so far) is a brilliant stroke of political strategy. But the concern that a press-conference will prevent concentrated coverage or protest is an empty conceit: given the size of the contemporary media and the supposed intensity of emotion against the incoming President, if protest is truly unable to manage multiple fronts that are not even that large or disparate then it seems the anti-Trump movement is not nearly as big or as passionate as it proclaims to be.

4. House GOP expressly forbids the Congressional Budget Office from reporting or tracking ANY costs related to the repeal of the ACA.

I only need to offer a simple direct quote from someone working in the CBO as to this ‘fact’ that has been catching fire all over the web:

“This is false. Section 3(h) on page 25 of HRes 5 establishes a point of order against a bill that would increase net direct spending by more than $5 billion in any of the four decades AFTER the budget window used for cost estimates prepared under the Budget Act. And it requires CBO to include in its cost estimates an analysis of whether the bill increases such costs in the long term (that requirement has been in place for quite some time). That section (in 3(h)(4)(A) and (B) then exempts ACA related bills from that long-term requirement. It has nothing to do with whether CBO can provide the normal cost estimates of legislation, including those related to the ACA. Furthermore, this a House rule; it does not apply to the Senate.”

She added that the reporting on this has been very uninformed. Really? “Reporting” that has been almost exclusively dominated by unvetted blog declarations online (ie, not run by accredited members of the formal media), covering aspects of internal house budget procedural rules (an arcane and insane depth of bureaucratic weed-diving if there ever was one), is ‘uninformed?’ The only real question is whether it is uninformed or simply purposely misleading in order to enrage people over nothing.

5. Trump continues to throw the intelligence community under the bus to protect Putin, despite the growing mountain of evidence that the Russians deliberately interfered in the election.

The misdirection in this accusation has been breathtakingly impressive. First, it was not that long ago when there was open protest and a ‘throwing under the bus’ of the Intelligence Community for it supposedly having too much of a political role in determining whether or not America should have gone to war in Iraq. The Intelligence Community at the time rightfully protested what was a fundamental misunderstanding by the American public as to what its true function in American democracy was supposed to be: namely, the IC is to collect information, assess and evaluate the data, and present the report findings to actual policy-makers who are then charged with deciding what they wish to do with it. Under no circumstance in the entire history of the American Intelligence Community has there ever been a clamor, from the public or the IC itself, for intelligence professionals to be the ones to exclusively commandeer or determine foreign policy. The mere thought that it may have come close to doing that in a subtle and quiet way in Iraq back in 2003 made the entire country apoplectic with the supposed breakdown of our system of checks and balances. Now apparently, because it is Trump, the public’s desire is to do that very thing. It should be noted that the Intelligence Community has been the only player in this political charade to respectfully remind people that it seeks no policy-making role and only has a responsibility to report findings to the President-elect and at that point it is the privilege and responsibility of the President-elect to do with the reports whatever he deems best.

Finally, a comment really needs to be made about that so-called mountain of evidence proving ‘Russian interference.’ I have written extensively on this before so I will not repeat comments already made. But what does need to be emphasized is the innate danger the Democratic Party is crafting for its future political campaigns if it continues to ever more heavily lean on the Russian bogeyman as an explanation as to why it lost to Trump in 2016. The Russians almost certainly conducted some shady maneuvers that amounted to a semi-effective PAC ad campaign against Clinton. They did this because they were worried that Hillary was undoubtedly going to be the winner and her positions for several years had been decidedly and very publicly anti-Russian. Attempting to besmirch and weaken her ‘incoming mandate’ was not only wise, it was politically necessary from a Russian foreign policy perspective. But that interference did not rig voting machines or intimidate voters from participating in important swing states across America. It simply is not proven that Clinton lost because of the Russians. The important subtext in the IC reporting de facto makes note of this. But the increasing importance Democrats are placing on this issue, as if they have in fact proven it when they haven’t, only means they are looking for expedient escapism so as to not face their own flawed approach to the presidential campaign.

6. Trump breaks a central campaign promise to make Mexico pay for the wall by asking Congress (in other words, the American taxpayers) to pay for it.

This last entry is symbolic because it represents at least a dozen other issue points Trump spoke to on the campaign trail and has subsequently walked back since being elected. What’s odd is the progressive outcry about it. Since almost the entire Trump platform, point by point, was ridiculed and reviled by the Left in America during the campaign, you would think walking those points back would only mean progressives, liberals, libertarians, and moderate Republicans en masse could breathe a sigh of relief. After all, Trump KEEPING his campaign promises is what was repeatedly considered the political End of Times for these groups. Trump breaking most if not all of his campaign promises should therefore be a blessing. And yet it is not. It is instead used as another stimulus to enable garment-renting, hand-wringing anti-Trump kvetching, the intensity of which has perhaps never been seen in political America before.

And this, alas, seems to be the true nature and purpose of the MacGuffin Presidency. What Trump truly does, what he truly represents and strives to achieve is amorphous, ephemeral, immaterial. Quite honestly, it’s irrelevant. A MacGuffin, remember, cannot in and of itself BE. It serves only to set and keep the plot in motion. And Trump, whether he likes it or not, whether he realizes it or not, is the MacGuffin for both left and right, for liberal and conservative, for American and global, to draw their battle lines in the sand and fight. The next four years are indeed going to be interesting. But I doubt they will be because of anything Trump actually does. Because, in the end, President MacGuffin is not seen or heard. He simply moves everyone else along their devoted paths and agendas.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Americas

Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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“Choose sides” is practically a bogus idea for US military partners

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“Choosing sides” is practically a non-starter for US military allies such as Japan and South Korea. These nations, first and foremost military allies of the US, are forging cordial and productive ties with other countries based on military alliances with the US. The nature and level of partnerships varies greatly from those of allies, despite the fact that they appear to be quite heated at times.

Military concerns have been less important in the postwar period, but economic concerns have been extremely heated, social and cultural interactions have been close, and the qualitative differences between cooperative relations and allies have gotten confused, or have been covered and neglected.

Some unreasonable expectations and even mistakes were made. In general, in the game between the rising power and the hegemony, it is undesirable for the rising power to take the initiative and urge the hegemony’s supporters to select a side. Doing so will merely reinforce these countries’ preference for hegemony.

Not only that, but a developing country must contend with not only a dominant hegemony, but also a system of allies governed by the hegemony. In the event of a relative reduction in the power of the hegemony, the strength of the entire alliance system may be reinforced by removing restraints on allies, boosting allies’ capabilities, and allowing allies’ passion and initiative to shine.

Similarly, the allies of the hegemonic power are likely to be quite eager to improve their own strength and exert greater strength for the alliance, without necessarily responding to, much alone being pushed by, the leader. The “opening of a new chapter in the Korean-US partnership” was a key component of the joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States following the meeting of Moon Jae-in and Biden. What “new chapter” may a military alliance have in a situation of non-war?

There are at least three features that can be drawn from the series of encounters between South Korea and the United States during Moon Jae-visit in’s to the United States: First, the withdrawal of the “Korea-US Missile Guide” will place military constraints on South Korea’s missile development and serve as a deterrence to surrounding nations. The second point is that, in addition to the Korean Peninsula, military cooperation between the US and South Korea should be expanded to the regional level in order to respond to regional hotspots. The third point is that, in addition to military alliances, certain elements in vaccinations, chips, 5G, and even 6G are required. These types of coalitions will help to enhance economic cooperation.

Despite the fact that Vice President Harris wiped her hands after shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, and Biden called Moon Jae-in “Prime Minister” and other rude behaviors, the so-called “flaws” are not hidden, South Korea still believes that the visit’s results have exceeded expectations, and that Moon Jae-in’s approval rate will rise significantly as a result.

The joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States addresses delicate subjects such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Of course, China expresses its outrage. It is widely assumed that this is a “private cargo” delivered by Biden’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit the United States.

Moon Jae-in stated that he was not pressured by Biden. If this is correct, one option is that such specific concerns will not be handled at all at the summit level; second, South Korea is truly worried about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns and wishes to speak with the US jointly.

South Korea should be cognizant of China’s sensitivity to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns. When it comes to China-related concerns, the phrasing in the ROK-US joint statement is far more mild than that in the ROK-Japan joint declaration. Nonetheless, the harm done to South Korea-China ties cannot be overlooked.

South Korea highlights the “openness” and “inclusiveness” of the four-party security dialogue system, which allows South Korea to engage to some extent. South Korea will assess the net gain between the “gain” on the US side and the “loss” on the Chinese side. China would strongly protest and fiercely respond to any country’s measures to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and restrict China’s rise.

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Political Violence and Elections: Should We Care?

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The next Sunday 6th of June, the Chamber of Deputies along with 15 out of the 32 governorships will be up for grabs in Mexico’s mid-term elections. These elections will be a crucial test for the popularity of the president and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). They currently hold majority in the Lower Chamber of the national Congress, and these elections could challenge this.

Recent national polls indicate that the ruling party, MORENA, is still the most popular political force in Mexico, and they are poised to win not only several governorships, but also several municipalities. They are also expected to maintain control of the Lower  Chamber, although with a loss of a few seats. In order to ensure MORENA keeps its current majority in the Congress, they have decided to pursue an electoral alliance with the Green Party (PVEM) and the Labout Party (PT). It is expected that with this move, they will be able to ensure the majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress.

There is, however, another aspect that is making the headlines in this current electoral process: The high levels of political and electoral violence, The current electoral process is the second most violent since 2000. The number of candidates that have been assassinated is close to 30% higher than the mid-term electoral process of 2015. More than 79 candidates have been killed so far all across the country.

Insecurity in Mexico has been an ongoing issue that has continued to deteriorate during the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO has continually criticised his predecessors and the valid problems of their approaches to insecurity in Mexico along with the War on Drugs policy. However, to date, he has yet to offer a viable alternative to tackle the security problems he inherited. During his campaign, AMLO coined the phrase “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) to describe his approach toward improving security in Mexico. He believed that to successfully tackle the worsening crisis of insecurity, the structural conditions that forced people to commit crimes had to be addressed first: Namely inequality, poverty, low salaries, lack of access to employment etc. To date, insecurity in Mexico continues to worsen, and this had become evident during the current electoral process.

This nonsensical approach to insecurity has resulted in the first three years of his government reaching over 100,000 murders, along with the nearly 225,000 deaths as a result of the pandemic.

What should be particularly worrying in this spiral of violence, is the prevalence of political and electoral violence during the current process. Political violence represents not only a direct attack on democratic institutions and democracy itself, but it also compromises the independence, autonomy, and integrity of those currently in power, and those competing for positions of power. It affects democracy also because political violence offers a way for candidates to gain power through violent means against opposition, and this also allows organised crime to infiltrate the state apparatus.

Political violence is a phenomenon that hurts all citizens and actors in a democracy. It represents a breeding ground for authoritarianism, and impunity at all levels of government. This limits the freedoms and rights of citizens and other actors as it extinguishes any sort of democratic coexistence between those currently holding political power and those aspiring to achieve it. Political violence also obstructs the development of democracy as it discredits anyone with critical views to those in power. This is worrying when we consider that 49% of those assassinated belong to opposition parties. This increase in political violence has also highlighted AMLO´s inability to curtail organised crime and related violence.

Assassination of candidates is only the tip of the iceberg. Organised criminal groups have also infiltrated politics through financing of political campaigns. Most of electoral and political violence tends to happen an municipal levels, where it is easier for criminal groups to exert more pressure and influence in the hope of securing protection, and perpetuate impunity, or securing control over drug trafficking routes. This should be especially worrisome when there is close too government control in certain areas of the country, and there is a serious risk of state erosion at municipal level in several states.

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