Due to Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential election this November North American foreign policy will experience radical changes. The new government creates hopes and fears. On the one hand, there is hope cooperation with Russia will be improved. On the other hand, peace dialogues with Iran are expected to worsen. However, international geopolitical equilibrium will have a different settlement.
The US has always influenced South American political history due to its geographical proximity and its economic interests. So how will Latin America be affected by Trump’s foreign policy? Hilary Clinton was supposed to continue Obama’s political strategy in the continent. But which heritage did Obama leave in South America?
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama became famous worldwide because of his charm and great oratory skills. In his electoral platform there was a message of cooperation and peace to all Latin American governments. Obama’s victory thus was celebrated by leftist Presidents in the entire continent. Lula – the former Brazilian President from 2002 to 2011 – said that Barack’s election was a historical moment for the world, “In the same way that Brazil elected a metalworker (Lula himself), Bolivia an aboriginal (Evo Morales), Venezuela a (Hugo) Chavez and Paraguay a bishop (Fernando Lugo), I believe it will be an extraordinary thing if in the biggest economy in the world a black person (Barack Obama) is elected president.” Also Chavez was optimistic about improving Venezuelan cooperation with the US.
Obama promised to improve North American partnership with South America based on multilateralism. But the opportunity to repair the relationship between Latin American countries and the US was already lost in 2009. In June 2009, the elected President of Honduras Manuel Zaleya was overthrown by a military coup. The US foreign office considered Zaleya as a dangerous leftist leader. Even though the OAS (Organization of American States) expelled Honduras after their break of constitutional order, Hilary Clinton, secretary state at the time, and President Obama pushed for new elections rather than asking for the return of Zaleya, the democratically elected President. US government immediately recognized the legitimacy of the new Lobio government in Honduras and it pressured other Latin countries to do the same. Clinton, when talking about Honduras coup, said “Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedents.” However, Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador in Honduras stated “Zelaya may have committed illegalities but there is no doubt that the military, supreme court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the executive branch.”
Obama’s strategy in Honduras thus worsened the US relationship with Brazil and with all leftist parties in South America. Furthermore, the Colombian and US government signed an agreement on military cooperation in 2009 without consulting any other Latin American countries. American and Colombian economic and military alliance finds its roots since the 1990 with Plan for Colombia establishment. Former President Bill Clinton approved a massive military and economic aid initiative to fund Colombian struggle against drug cartels and left-wing insurgent groups. The aim of the plan was to supply Colombia with military training and military technologies to contrast violence in the country. The flow of money from the US government to Colombia has not stopped since then. Former President G.W. Bush and Obama maintained Plan for Colombia. According to the US Foreign Office, in 2012 the US allocated 644.304.766$ in Colombia. Breaking down the aid, we discover that 446.552.148$ were funds for military and security help. The tight relationship between the two countries is confirmed by the trade deal signed in 2011.
Obama was a strong sponsor of the peace dialogue between the FARC and Santos government. He even promised to increase American economic aid in Colombia of 450 million of dollars. Even though Obama was not personally involved in the discussion of the peace agreement in Colombia, he has started a process of normalization with Cuba. The US and Cuba has not had diplomatic relations since the 1960s. After the communist revolution in the country, the US imposed a trade embargo against Cuba. Obama’s plan was to improve Cuban and American relations by reviewing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and by ending the economic embargo. After formal talks, American Congress will be called to vote for the official revocation of the embargo. The new course, however, was not just due to Obama’s effort. The role of the former Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis was fundamental to foster peace between the two countries. Regardless the fact that it was a multilateral effort, the improvement of Cuban and American relations has been the most considerable heritage of Obama’s presidency in South America.
Obama has not been able to improve the precarious diplomatic relationship whit Venezuela and Ecuador. Even if the US is the largest trading partner of Venezuela, US governments have not sent Ambassadors in the Latin country since 2006. Their diplomatic relations are now extremely tense. Maduro accused US governments of imperialism and of trying to defeat his government in Venezuela, while American diplomacy denounced human rights violations against Maduro’s adversaries. The latter, instead, declared US Ambassador Persona non-grata in 2011 in response to the release of secret documents in which US diplomatists accused Ecuadorian President Correa to be corrupted. In the last months of 2015 Ecuador and the US re-established diplomatic relations. However, there is still a considerable tension between them. Guillaume Long, Ecuadorian foreign minister, said that he wanted to cooperate with the US but American governments needed to not interfere with internal political decisions in South America.
In the last eight years Brazilian and American relations have been problematic. After the disclosure of NSA secret reports on Brazil, former Brazilian President Dilma cancelled her official state visit in 2014. NSA was spying the conversations of top Brazilian managers and politics, even Dilma was recorded during her private calls. It appears, at least, unusual that US secret services were spying the establishment of a country which is a stable democracy and an American ally for the last thirty years. Obama’s presidency had tense diplomatic relations also with Argentina and her former President Kirchner. Specifically, their conflict was about Argentinian default in 2014. American hedge funds, which bought cheap Argentinian bonds in 2001, were asking for a full pay out that Kirchner refused to provide.
Interestingly, both, Dilma and Kirchner, found themselves at the centre of scandals the last year. The former was indirectly involved in Petrobas investigation, the latter was accused to have covered Iranian responsibility on the terroristic attack which killed 84 people in Buenos Aires in 1994. With their defeat, Latin America is going through the end of the leftist season. The new Argentinian President, Mauricio Macri, has already endorsed his priority to mend relations with investors and big foreign groups. The new Brazilian President, Michel Temer, has already approved liberalizations on natural resources exploitation which will attract foreign investors in Brazil. The new courses in Brazil and Argentina seem to find North American support. Actually, Macri and Temer will be aiming to improve Argentinian and Brazilian economic and diplomatic cooperation with the US.
Eight years of Obama’s presidency has left lights and shadows. On the one hand, he fostered normalization with Cuba and he played an important role in FARC’s and the Colombian government’s peace agreement. On the other hand, he was not able to radically change American relations with Latin countries. Obama promised to establish multilateral relations with South American countries failed. It cannot be identified a turning point in how Obama’s governments interfere with internal political affairs of Latin countries.
Trump, uncertainty of US future
Trump has promised to radically change US foreign policy. However, it is unclear how he will do so. During his presidential campaign, he contradicted himself several times. Trump said that he would reduce America’s intervention in the world. First of all, Trump’s disengagement will alter US commitment to international organizations. NATO and the defence agreements with Japan and South Korea could experience a decrease of US military and financial dedication. In addition, the relationships with China and Iran seem to be critical factors in the international equilibrium. Trump criticized Obama’s the Nuclear Deal with Iran, he could run away from the agreement and re-impose sanctions. His proposal to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese import would start an economic conflict with the Chinese government.
The South American continent does not seem to be a priority in the new President’s agenda. Three main topics on Latin America dominated his electoral campaign:
(i) According to Pew Hispanic Center, in 2014 there were 11. 7 million Mexican immigrants residing in the US and 6.5 million of them would be illegally living in the country. So when he promised that 11 million illegal immigrants would be deported, it was clear whom he was referring to. Trump even claimed that he would force the Mexican government to build a wall on the border between the US and Mexico. His economic plan for “making America great again” claimed to bring back manufacturing factories to the US. Trump said he would overtax North American companies which produce in Mexico. After having described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists, in August 2016 Trump officially met Mexican President Nieto. But there were no significant results from their conversation. Actually, while Trump said Niento agreed to pay for a wall on the border, the Mexican President posted a tweet to contradict Trump’s claim.
(ii) Trump is one of the few Republican leaders that support the process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the US. The President-elected is said to agree with the “Cuban Thaw”, however, he argues that the US could have made a better deal. In this case, uncertainty about the future of Cuba-US relations is driven by the fact that the majority of the Republic party does not support the normalization of Cuban and North American relations.
(iii) Even thought Nicholas Maduro, President of Venezuela, recently stated to hope for improving his relations with the US in Trump presidency, few days ago he called Trump a bandit. During his campaign, Trump was not friendly to Maduro, he said that “Venezuelans are good people, but they have been horribly damaged by the socialists in Venezuela and the next president of the United States must show solidarity with all the oppressed people in the hemisphere.” Even if Trump does not believe in “exporting democracy”, it is unclear how he will work to improve US relations with Venezuela.
It is not clear what Trump’s presidency will mean for American and Latin countries relations, Trump is still a mystery. Obama’s presidency instead was an unsuccessful hope that the US would have been able to establish multilateral forms of cooperation with Latin American countries.
Biden’s Dilemma: Caught Between Israel and Iran
By all indication, the latest sabotage at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz aimed at more than just disabling thousands of Iran’s centrifuges and thus cause another setback for Iran’s nuclear program, it was also meant as an indirect diplomatic sabotage vis-a-vis the on-going nuclear talks in Vienna; the latter had shown real signs of progress before the April 10th incident at the Natanz facility, blamed on Israel by the Iranian officials, who have vowed to get revenge — an attack on an Israeli cargo ship off the coast of Oman as well as an attack on an Israeli post in Iraq’s Kurdistan may indeed be the acts of Iranian retaliation.
But, from Iran’s vantage, the biggest response was the decision to upgrade the enrichment level from 20% to 60% percent, thus bringing Iran closer to the weapons grade enrichment, bound to raise the ire of Tel Aviv, which is intent on dispossessing Iran of nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has followed suit by stating that Iran will not be dragged into a “protracted negotiation” with the US and that US’ removal of sanctions needs to be the first step in a future US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In turn, this raises the question of how will the Biden administration respond, and adjust to, the latest developments?
On the one hand, the Iranian setback in Natanz, widely interpreted inside Iran as a major “embarrassment,” as it is the second time in 9 months that Israel has successfully inflicted serious damage on the facility, weakens Iran’s hand at the table in Vienna, no matter how the Iran negotiators seek to spin the issue. With Iran’s vulnerability to “nuclear sabotage” irrefutably established, Tehran’s ability to utilize its nuclear chips in the bargaining with US has been diminished, perhaps for the duration of the current year, thus leading some conservative politicians to urge the government to withdraw from the Vienna talks.
On the other hand, it is by no means clear that the Biden administration favors Israel’s spoiler role, which might lead to an escalation of tensions in the region to the detriment of Biden’s determination to re-embrace the JCPOA as part and parcel of an Iran “re-thinking” policy at odds with his predecessor’s maximum pressure strategy. Chances are that, much like the Obama administration, the Biden administration will need to defy Israel’s will on Iran and push ahead for a new understanding with Tehran at a time Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and, to a lesser extent the Saudi rulers, are wary of Biden’s resurrection of Obama’s (perceived) conciliatory approach toward Iran. The big question is if President Biden is willing to act independently of Israel’s hawkish recipe for Iran and make meaningful concessions, above all in the area of post-2015 sanctions on Iran, in order to achieve its key demand of bringing Iran in compliance with its JCPOA obligations? Lest we forget, Obama’s defiance of Israel on the JCPOA caused a major rift benefiting the Republican Party opponents of the deal, such as Donald Trump, and so far there is little evidence that Biden is unmindful of that prior experience. In turn, this may explain the timing of US Defense Secretary Austin’s Israel visit coinciding with the Natanz sabotage, which may not have been coincidental as Israel most likely had informed Washington of the coming attack on Natanz beforehand.
Naturally, Tehran is irritated at Austin’s presence in Israel at that particular time and his expression of “ironclad support” for Israel instead of raising any criticism of nuclear terrorism against Iran, just as China and Russia have done. In fact, none of the Western governments, as well as the EU, partaking in the Vienna talks, have bothered to condemn the attack on Natanz, thus adding salt to Iran’s injury. Instead, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, dispensed with any criticism of Israel and confined himself to questioning Iran’s post-attack decision to increase the enrichment level, which he called “irresponsible.” But, is it really responsible for the US and European powers to refrain from condemning an act of sabotage with respect to a facility that, under the terms of JCPOA, is recognized to be the hub of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle? Germany, France, and England, as well as the European Union, ought to act in unison denouncing the acts of nuclear sabotage in Iran, irrespective of Israel’s prerogative. Their failure to do so simply adds another layer of distrust between Iran and these powers, to the detriment of any prospect for tangible progress in the Vienna talks.
As for Biden’s foreign team, which has reported of its “serious proposal” on the table, it must recognize that unless there is some pressure applied on Israel to stop its spoiler role, US’s national interests maybe harmed and even sacrificed by a hawkish Middle East ally that behaves according to its own calculation of risks to its interests. In a word, an Obamaian rift with Israel may indeed be both inescapable and inevitable for the Biden administration.
Roads and Rails for the U.S.
For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store. The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled. The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-. Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+. If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.
Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually. Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall. Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total. It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to. Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs.
One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland. A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site. Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint. And that it gets. Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.
Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways. Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S. European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains. Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph) — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.
The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future. But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.
If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center. Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.
Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere. In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.
Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost. When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.
Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas
The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.
The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?
Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?
This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.
While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.
When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.
The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.
Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.
Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.
It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity. Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.
Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.
It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.
Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.
The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people. This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.
The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.
The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.
Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request.
When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.
To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.
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