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The Caligula Presidency

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”-From A Tale of Two Cities. “May you live in interesting times”-Chinese curse

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] L [/yt_dropcap] ately, in Modern Diplomacy, and elsewhere in the publishing on-line world, we have had a spate of articles on the up-coming Trump Presidency and how it will transform the next four (or perhaps eight) years “interesting times.” I wonder if people writing these pieces, either singing the praises of, or berating the upcoming Presidency of Donald Trump, are cognizant of the fact that “to live in interesting times” is considered a curse by the Chinese, perhaps even by the Russians.

Be that as it may, I’d like to suggest that perhaps a quote from one of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities may prove more appropriate: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

To understand such a subtle quip, we need to go back in time to another presidency some fifty years ago and another reign some 2000 years ago. I am referring to Kennedy’s presidency and Caligula’s reign. Those two regimes lasted only a few years, but Dickens’ quip seems to apply to both and it may well turn out to apply to Trump’s presidency too. Let’s see.

We need to go back to April 1961, when over fourteen hundred members of the Cuban Expeditionary Forces landed at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba. Their mission was to overthrow the communist regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro. The mission was a failure. Almost immediately it became known that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained the so called “freedom fighters.” John F. Kennedy had approved the mission.

President Kennedy soon after the failure spoke at a meeting of the American Association of Newspaper Editors and assumed all responsibility and blame. But soon after his staff began leaking information to reporters, blaming the failure on anyone except the administration. President Kennedy was quoted as saying, “How could I have been so stupid?” to trust the groups who were advising him, such as the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Even more damning to the CIA was a reputed quote by President Kennedy that he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”

Two and a half years after Kennedy supposedly uttered these words, he was assassinated along a motorcade route in Dallas, Texas. The official government story is that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed Kennedy. A rather popular conspiracy theory, on the other hand, claims that because Kennedy was planning on dismantling the intelligence infrastructure, the CIA had Kennedy killed, and then later covered up the assassination plot. Now, it is not inconceivable that splintering the CIA into a thousand pieces might cause some in the CIA to wonder whether Kennedy was good for the CIA in particular and the entire country in general. And so the conspiracy theory remains alive.

Perceiving the President as a security threat would rationalize an assassination in Machiavellian “real politik” geo-political terms. Let us keep in mind that in our turbulent sad times of when the end seems to justify any means and any agenda, assassinations (as well as assassination of the truth via propaganda) may be part of those means to be employed to gain and retain power. That’s what Machiavelli’s Prince is all about. This is apparent in any authoritarian government around the world, including those who deny that they use those nefarious means. Let’s not be naïve; just look around.

But to go back to Kennedy, given Kennedy’s affinity for covert operations, the next question is whether Kennedy’s attitudes towards intelligence changed after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Was Kennedy’s confidence in the CIA undermined? It is historically true that, because of his feeling that he needed a better way of gaining intelligence, Kennedy instigated a review of the intelligence system. It is also true that President Kennedy, and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a habit of not working through the proper channels when it came to communicating with the CIA, and they did not take “I do not know” for an answer. In any case, after his review of the intelligence community, the President began to rely more closely than before on his National Security Advisor to provide him with information. This resulted in more accurate information and arguably helped prevent further fiascoes like the Bay of Pigs.

History may eventually render a final verdict on this popular conspiracy theory on the CIA’s role in Kennedy’s assassination. For the moment we have the official verdict of the government’s investigation. What concerns us here is the comparison with the present situation. To be sure, there are some parallels. Let’s analyze them.

President-elect Trump has been served with intelligence classified reports (which included the CIA intelligence agency) on Russia’s hacking and active interference in the US presidential elections. Mr. Trump has refused, so far, to acknowledge what the report claims, and talks about a fat man in New Jersey sitting on his couch and hacking away at his heart’s content; which of course sounds slightly deranged and more like a rationalization.

Moreover, the intelligence community has furnished Trump with some information which has been circulating for some time now. The information reveals some salacious news generated during his trip to Moscow in 2013 where allegedly Trump was compromised. Here again Trump and all his campaign staff have vehemently pushed back claiming on those rumors claiming that they are pure gossip and slander and the CIA should not have made them public. Actually it was not the CIA who made them public but CNN. Here the denial that followed the allegations of groping by a bunch of women a few months ago, jump to mind.

To place the above in a better context we now need to go back 2000 years when Emperor Caligula ruled the Roman Empire. Some scholars have called his five year rule the beginning of the end for the Empire. Why is that? Well, consider this: he was a man that on a personal psychological level, since his youth displayed psychopathic, extremely narcissistic, paranoid, dictatorial tendencies with a streak of vengefulness and sadism. He seemed to enjoy to disrespect and insult people, to see them hurt and humiliated, especially those who disagreed with him or opposed him in any way. In today’s parlance we would say that he had a thin skin and a fat ego. For example, he would invite a Senator and his wife to dinner; during the event he would invite the wife of the senator to follow him to his bedroom, have sex with her, and then return her to her humiliated husband sitting at the table. In modern Italian parlance he had in effect made a “cornuto” of the senator, a fellow senator of his horse.

He named his horse a senator to serve notice that he would tolerate no opposition from any body, not even from an august political democratic body such as the Senate. In fact, he had contempt for the traditional values of Rome. He took the Roman army to Normandy, supposedly to invade Britain, and had his generals dismount from their horses and collect shells on the beach for his shell collection. One can blame all this to the excesses of absolute power but here was something different, deranged, practically psychotic. He would tell his Praetorian guards to kneel before him not so much because he was emperor, but because he was an immortal god. He insulted and blamed them of incompetence on a daily basis. One was called a girl by him for having a soft voice.

He loved spectacles and games in the Coliseum dressed in extravagant clothes and rode around Rome showing off in a chariot of six horses. He did all those things all the more when he realized that he had become the toast of the people who enjoyed seeing the elites of Rome humiliated. That’s what an emperor should do. He, a member of the aristocracy, had managed to transform himself into a populist. The Republic was fast becoming an autocracy; something rather familiar in modern times. Think of Russia, for example. If all this is sounding familiar, it is because it is. All one has to do is transfer the six horse chariot to the Trump private plane and think of Putin, Trump’s friend, as the richest man in Russia.

We know how the story of Caligula ends: as he was walking out of the Coliseum, his own praetorian guards, those who had been called girls, incompetent and stupid, killed him. In effect they decided to prove their incompetence and the fact that he, Caligula, was just another mortal man. And of course, it was all justified as necessary for the security of the empire which could not be left in the hands of a madman.

But there is another lesson, a moral of sorts, to be derived from those three stories and it is this: it is not very wise to insult and treat with contempt the very people in charge of security, that of the state or one’s own personal security, those who are sworn to come to your defense. If one calls them incompetent, they will prove their incompetence and leave you defenseless to suddenly find out that all men are mortal and that as Socrates put it: “the issue is not whether we live or die, but whether corruption, which is faster than death, catched up with us, because once she has caught up, she may not relent her grasp.”

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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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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