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Lula vs Bolsonaro: The populist moment in Brazil

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap]ince the election victory of Donald Trump, many have tirelessly talked about populism. It is not a first appearance. This phenomenon has been recently experienced in Latin America, it has also been the spirit of the interwar period of fascism in Europe and it has happened in Russia in 1917. In fact, it has happened many times, in many different places.

Since the emergence of so-called left-wing populism in Greece and Spain, with SYRIZA and “citizen platforms” in union with Podemos, up until more recent right-wing populism from the National Front in France, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right, and Brexit and the UKIP, Geert Wilders (in addition to Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Norway) etc; the “western” world seems to be haunted by the specter of populism. Finally, has Brazil, which lived its personal drama between the reelection of Dilma Rousseff (November 2014) and her impeachment (August 2016), also achieved this international trend?

Crisis, House of Cards, and more crisis.

In Political Science, especially in International Relations, a large technical vocabulary is used to refer to Brazil’s position in the International System. It has varied recently from the euphemistic use of the term “peripheral nation” to the ambitious “emerging power.” In both cases attention is drawn to the geography and mechanics used. It is almost unnecessary to point out that these are relational terms; Someone is peripheral to something or someone, as well as who emerges, does so from one environment to another. It is derived from this physics that waves originating in the “center” propagate to the “periphery”, as well as that turbulences in an environment can transfer to a neighboring environment.

President Lula da Silva, for example, referring to the 2007-08 Financial Crisis, once said that it was a “tsunami” in the United States, but Brazil would only have a “marolinha” (a wavelet). History proved him wrong, but the analogy still holds some value, after all something arrived in Brazil at last, although late. One can propose another vision for the mechanics envisaged by Lula if only we look back at the major historical events of the last century. Namely, that the great historical characters and facts, according to Marx, seem to repeat themselves – first as tragedy, then as farce.

Does this mean, for instance, that the tragedy of the 1929 Crisis and its “superstructural” (political and ideological) effects on international politics, of a transnational populist “moment” in the 1930s and 1940s simply returns today as a farce? Difficultly. World political history does not seem to follow a single unvarying and identifiable flow. In fact, those who are well acquainted with history and politics in general know that there are flows and reflows, movements and counter-movements, revolutions and counter-revolutions. But the ebbs don’t ever mean a return to the exact previous status quo, but rather a dialectical and historical overtake. The “movement” of history, therefore, is more like a war of position, of trenches, of gains and losses, rather than a frontal, immediate and unequivocal irruption, as Gramsci would say.

Yet, just as so-called “right-wing populism” spread throughout the European scene of material scarcity and personal hopelessness in the first half of the last century, something similar (but not the same) is happening today in Europe itself and in the United States. But how has the “wavelet” arrived in Brazil?

Let us make a rather superficial summary of the last years of Brazilian political life, justified only by the impracticability of dealing fully with the historical conformation of the Brazilian crisis conjuncture. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff (PT) is elected president after running against José Serra (PSDB) in the second round. In her campaign, Rousseff presents herself as a continuation of her and President Lula’s party policies (such as the welfare program Bolsa Família, which aimed at providing financial aid to poor Brazilian families on condition that children attended school and are vaccinated) – as Lula leaves the presidency with a record approval rating of 87%. What followed was a slowdown in the Brazilian economy during her first term (2011-2014), a desertion from the counter-cyclical measures taken by the PT government since the end of the Lula administration to combat the international crisis and finally the great protests of June 2013 (Jornadas de Junho). Nevertheless, Rousseff is re-elected at the end of 2014, defeating Aécio Neves (PSDB), also in the second round, with a difference of only 3% of valid votes.

From the beginning of 2015 onwards, what took place was politics in its purest form. In addition to a dramatic intensification of the effects of the international crisis in Brazil (greater than a wavelet), Brazil experienced an endless series of unpredictable events of greater drama than the Latin American soap operas themselves. In short, it was part of the everyday life of the Brazilian citizen (and it still is), when opening the newspaper in the morning, to come across: Some new arrest of a high-influence politician or a billionaire from the construction industry as a new phase of Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato); Some new plea bargain agreement that compromises politicians of almost every party; Conspiracy theories involving people of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; Leaks from secret audio recordings of these same people which would prove right or wrong some of the theories; Accidents and tragic deaths of key figures in the investigations; More conspiracy theories; Motions for impeachment directed to the President of the Republic (Dilma Rousseff); Motion to remove the President of the Chamber of Deputies (Eduardo Cunha, PMDB) who ironically had just accepted the motion against Rousseff and eventually got arrested by Lava Jato; A suspension order issued by Justice Mello to the President of the Senate (Renan Calheiros, PMDB) who simply decided to ignore it; Impeachment motion directed to the governor of Rio de Janeiro (Luis F. Pezão, PMDB) and the arrest of two former governors of the same state (Garotinho, PR, and Cabral Filho, PMDB); Protests against the government; Protests supporting the government. Finally, an almost endless chain of events resulted in the Senate vote in August 2016, for the removal of Dilma Rousseff from office. This marks the start of then Vice President Michel Temer’s (PMDB) presidency, raising a heated public debate about the legitimacy of his government.

Populism in Brazil: There and Back Again

On February 15, 2017, the National Transportation Confederation (CNT) and the MDA Research Institute announced the results of their poll regarding voting intention for the 2018 presidential elections: Lula da Silva (PT) leads with 30.5%, followed by Marina Silva (REDE) with 11.8% and, most impressively, Jair Bolsonaro (PSC) with 11.3%.

What is surprising? The accumulation of forces of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro. Although it’s true little attention has been given to Marina Silva, this is justifiably so. Silva is a former senator from the Amazonian state of Acre, with moderate or unclear positions on most major political issues. Located at the center of the political-ideological spectrum, Marina Silva is affiliated with the hardly relevant REDE, a party with environmental outfits, but with little theoretical formulation or practical action. The senator’s performance most likely results from her performance in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections, ranking third in both and presenting herself as the “middle way” between left and right. Her seasonal appearance every four years in Brazilian electoral politics usually fails to build up momentum and hardly presents her as a viable political alternative.

The 30.5% obtained by Lula does not fail to impress. As it is widely known, Lula was president of Brazil for two terms: 2003-2006 and 2007-2010. His name is both the most controversial and the strongest of the current political left in Brazil. The progressive field also counts on probable candidates that are critical of Lula. Namely, Ciro Gomes (PDT), former governor of the state of Ceará, a national-developmentalist, owner of an eloquent and aggressive discourse. Lastly, it is likely that a new candidate will still be announced by PSOL, a party that is more ideological than PT and PDT, but of little strength outside the intellectual and academic circles.

The big news, however, is the inclusion of Jair Bolsonaro in the list. His rise to third place outperforms all other leaders traditionally associated with the political right, such as former candidates Aécio Neves and José Serra (both from PSDB). But who is Bolsonaro? Member of the Christian Social Party (PSC), Bolsonaro is a former captain of the 8th Artillery Group of the Brazilian Army, a federal deputy for the state of Rio de Janeiro and father of the also politicians Eduardo, Flávio and Carlos Bolsonaro. The Bolsonaro family, in general, is unquestionably associated with far-right ultraconservatist politics and they carry out polemic statements ranging from the defense of the Military Dictatorship in Brazil (1964-85), to positions considered intolerant, sexist and homophobic. In 2015, for example, when asked about an Amnesty International study of the country’s public security crisis (in 2014, more than 3,000 people in Brazil were killed by the police), Jair Bolsonaro literally stated: “I think the Military Police of Brazil should kill more”. It is unnecessary to clarify that Bolsonaro is critical of the notion of Human Rights and regards it as the creation of socialists seeking cultural hegemony.

In this electoral framework, with no intentions of underestimating Marina Silva, what strikes the attention is the dispute between the populism of Lula and that of Bolsonaro. Is it an “old” populism of the South American Pink Tide against a “new” far-right populism? What do they have in common? And more importantly – what is populism?

Definitions and non-definitions

Many definitions and interpretations have emerged or been recalled since Donald Trump’s victory. Namely, in December 2016, after the outcome of the American presidential election, Time magazine devoted an entire article, “The Populists” by Simon Shuster, to deal with the populism of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage (UKIP), however, without caring about defining or explaining the phenomenon. This lack of conceptual clarity on populism is not exclusive to Time. As Ernesto Laclau explains in his book “On Populist Reason” (2005), most of the time, intellectual understanding is replaced by appeals to an “unspoken intuition” or by descriptive enumerations of a variety of “relevant characteristics”.

Appealing to intuition and enumerating “relevant characteristics” is precisely what Forbes does, in its January 24, 2017 article entitled “Why Populism Is Rising and How To Combat It” and signed by IESE Business School. Astonishingly enough, the article begins with the statement: “Readers relax, I’m not going to talk politics.” What follows are some painful paragraphs of pure ideological verbiage and, finally, a list of characteristics that, in short, associate populism with a deviant practice that divides people between “us” and the “elite”.

Examples multiply. We could also mention the part of the specialized media that tried to deal with the subject with less common sense. Foreign Affairs, in the article of the well-known Fareed Zakaria “Populism on the March” of November / December of 2016. Zakaria points out to economic factors are not the most important to explain contemporary populism, but cultural factors are. Problems arise here concerning the idealistic ontological foundations of Zakaria. Why, for example, is populism manifesting only now if the cultural components of Western democracies have not changed since the recent past, and more importantly, if these cultural components have recently changed, what made that happen?

We are finally left with a definition that seems to embrace the different types of populism in geography and history as well as to understand it from a process that is historical, conjunctural and comprises changes. On November 9, 2016, Pablo Iglesias, Secretary General of the Spanish left-wing party Podemos (and a populist himself), describes populism in his article “Trump y el momento populista” in his column “Otra Vuelta de Tuerka” at “Diario Público”. According to Iglesias, populism is not an ideology nor a “pack of public measures”, but rather it is a way of constructing the political from an “outside” which expands in moments of crisis. He also claims that populists are outsiders and they can be located anywhere on the political spectrum. However, that should not suggest that the “extremes” (right and left) join together or are similar in any way.

“Trump is not close to Sanders”, Iglesias explains. Rather, Trump’s immigration policies are close to the ones of the Republican Party and the European Union. Therefore, populism doesn’t define political options but political moments. Trump simply took advantage of the moment.

Conclusion – Back to Brazil

The clash between Lula and Bolsonaro is therefore not simply a Brazilian peculiarity. It is contained within a larger logic. One that results from a conjunction of historical factors that go beyond abstract constructs like national boundaries. It is not our intention, as opposed to cultural variables, to present the international political economy as the “ultimate determinant” of the populist phenomenon, but to understand it as the construction of the political. Tautologically, it emerges when the conditions for it emerge, that is, it occurs in its moment. This moment, indeed, is constantly found between an “old” and a “new” world orders, that is, between different “historical blocs”.

No doubt an “old” social, political, and economic arrangement has already died in Brazil. The “Jornadas de Junho” in 2013 were a prelude to its deterioration, all the mobilization and all the conspiracies that followed the 2014 elections indicated a worsening of its clinical condition and its death was finally declared by the impeachment in August 2016. Any deeper analysis to be made of this moment must therefore consider the hegemonic dispute in question. That means it should be taken into account the dialectics “structure” and “superstructure” in the context of a serious economic crisis, as well as the dialectics “political society” and “civil society” in the context of a populist dispute for “empty signifiers”.

In conclusion, some theses can be proposed about the current Brazilian situation. Firstly, the political form based on the polarization PT vs PSDB has reached exhaustion, just as the economic and neo-developmental form ends in the neoliberalism of Michel Temer. Secondly, Lula’s strength is greater than the strength of his party, and it has to do with his populist political construction, which again finds a favorable moment. Lastly, the emergence of Bolsonaro has little to do with the content of his politics and policies, but only with the populist moment.

Only in the coming months shall we see the development of our crisis, little can be anticipated. Variables that intervene to any predictions may arise from the most diverse possibilities; from a new Lava Jato arrest (and there are those who guarantee that Lula is next in line) to some event that sparks the political violence that lies latent in Brazil. In any case, politics continues in Brazil as it has never ceased to be: the farce of tragedy and the tragedy of farce

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The American Initiative for a “Better World” and its difference with the Chinese Belt and Road

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During their summit held at the end of July 2021 in the city of “Cornwall” in Britain, the leaders of the countries (the Group of Seven major economic leaders “G7” led by Washington) have been announced the launch of an ambitious global initiative called “Rebuilding a Better World”. It is internationally, known as:

Build Back Better World (B3W)

  The “Rebuilding a Better World” initiative aims to (meet the massive financing requirements for infrastructure needs). The most important differences and distinguishes between (the Chinese initiative for the Belt and Road and the American initiative to build a better world), are highlighted, through:

1) The intense Chinese interest in doing (development initiatives that are not politically conditional, unlike the American tool that sets political goals and conditions as a condition for the work of projects or the provision of loans, as well as China’s interest in infrastructure and community projects), and this is the most obvious and famous reason for the “Belt and Road” initiative, whereas the maps showed China’s roads, railways, and pipelines networks extending with partner countries, in addition to cooperation in (the field of digital technologies, educational and social institutions, and security services), which creates a network of relations that will continue in the future, in contrast to the US case or initiative.

  2) We find that while (the leaders of the seven major economic countries neglected to develop long-term strategic plans in their initiative for a better world to serve poor and developing peoples), the vision of the “Belt and Road” has been more clearly manifested through the spread of many other developmental initiatives and the other extensions with it, which include the “Silk Road” for its projects, such as: (The Health Silk Road Initiative to combat “Covid-19”, and the launch of the “Digital Silk” initiative, known as (Information Silk Road).

 3) At a time when Washington and its allies ignored the interests of developing countries, China has contributed to (leading the global development initiatives, especially the Healthy Silk Road to help countries affected by the spread of the pandemic), an initiative mentioned for the first time in the (White Book of Chinese Policy in  2015), Chinese President “Xi Jinping” announced officially the “Health Silk Road” that was presented in a 2016 speech delivered by the Chinese President in Uzbekistan, as well as the new road and the most recent Chinese initiative, known as the “Polar Silk Road”, which also known as the “Ice Silk Road”, which stretches across the “North Pole”, it was first highlighted in 2018.

 4) In the belief of China to lead global development efforts, in contrast to ignoring the “Better World Initiative”, it was represented in China’s leadership in the field of “climate and environmental governance”, so the Chinese government initiated the launch of the “Green Silk Road Fund”, which was established by Chinese investors to promote (Chinese projects that take into account environmental standards), and the latest and most advanced here is the Chinese announcement of the “Space Silk Road”, which is the development of the Chinese “Beidou” system for artificial intelligence technology, and others.

5) Here, we find that at a time when China’s desire to support and modernize all African and poor countries is increasing, the American initiative, which is alleged to be an alternative to the Chinese plan, has come to China’s interest in projects (the Chinese satellite navigation system), and it is scheduled to be used and developed China as an alternative to GPS services.

 6) The American President “Joe Biden” adopted the “Building Better for the World” project, stressing that its mainly focus on the (climate, health, digital sector, and combating social inequality), because the “Belt and Road” initiative – as stated by assistants to US President “Biden” – has transformed from a series of unauthorized projects connected to infrastructure, a cornerstone of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy, and the initiative supported China with raw materials, trade links, and geopolitical influence, so the “White House” wants to engage in projects with greater environmental and labor standards than those funded by China, and with complete transparency regarding financial terms. Perhaps that point raised by Washington towards China comes without (the United States of America presenting concrete evidence of the validity of those accusations to China, as well as Washington’s failure to penetrate deep into the African continent compared to the Chinese side).

 7) American reports accuse Beijing of being (the reason for the decline of its influence on the African continent, and the United States faces many obstacles and challenges to regain its influence again in Latin American countries, which considers China as a trading partner and an important and vital investor in the African and Latin region).  For example, bilateral trade between Brazil – the largest economy in South America, and China increased from $2 billion in 2000 to $100 billion in 2020.  Perhaps this in itself (supports China’s credibility with its development projects to serve African and developing peoples, in contrast to African and Latin rejection, for example, of American influence and penetration in their countries).

8) The most important analytical thing for me is that the relationship of the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” with African countries supports “the call of China and Chinese President “Xi Jinping” towards a multilateral and multipolar world”. Therefore, we find that (China’s agreement with these African countries came in their support for multipolarity in the world, which the United States rejects), while African countries and the developing world mainly welcome the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which meets the needs of economic development in their countries, which the alleged American initiative will be unable to meet.

 9) It also represents the Chinese initiative for the Belt and Road (a prelude to the China-Pacific cooperation road to link China and Latin America more closely, through the 21st century Maritime Silk Road from China to Latin America, which the United States strongly opposed, which reduces travel time between them, it works on developing infrastructure and connectivity, and investing in port works and ocean corridors between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Which (made the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean consider cooperation with Beijing a huge investment opportunity and a support for economic and social development plans, as well as an improvement in the region’s competitiveness).

 10) It is worth noting that what distinguishes (the Chinese initiative for the Belt and Road from the American Better World Initiative, is its “sweeping popularity globally”), especially if we know that more than 100 countries have joined the Beijing initiative, which made it stronger politically and diplomatically. China signed cooperation documents on Belt and Road construction with 171 countries and regions around the world, and the trade value between China and countries along the Belt and Road amounted to about 1.35 trillion dollars in 2020, accounting for 29.1 percent of the total value of China’s foreign trade which (the United States of America will be unable to provide in light of the current economic crisis, unlike China). The investment cooperation between them amounted to about $17.7 billion, and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce stated that the companies of the “Belt and Road” countries have established 4,294 institutions in China, with an investment value of $8.27 billion.

 11) and even came (confessions by well-known American bodies of China’s developmental role in confronting the United States of America), for example, a report by the “American Council on Foreign Relations” confirmed that: “Since the launch of the “Belt and Road” initiative in 2013, Chinese banks and companies have funded and the construction of power stations, railways, highways, and ports, as well as communications infrastructure, fiber-optic cables and smart cities around the world, and if the initiative continues to implement its plans, China will be able to stimulate global economic growth, and meet the needs of developing countries for the long term”.  This is an American testimony and a clear acknowledgment of the strength of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and its development projects around the world.

12) It remains to be noted here that (the American attempts to put forward alternative development initiatives for the Chinese Belt and Road is a kind of American political competition with China, so the question here is: Why did the United States not provide real development projects over the past long years), so we understand that the Belt Initiative  The road is the largest infrastructure program in the world, and indeed it has become an economic and political challenge for Washington.  Experts believe that the preoccupation of the United States with its financial and economic crises has contributed greatly to giving China the opportunity to extend its economic and development influence among the countries of the world. The “Rebuilding a Better World” initiative comes among other US initiatives to try to confront and confront China, such as the Ocos Defense Security Agreement with Britain and Australia, as well as the first meeting of the “Quad Quartet” with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. The “Biden administration” is also seeking to hold bilateral talks with countries in order to promote the American initiative, and recently talks were held with Indian Prime Minister (Narendra Modi), especially since India has refused to join the Belt and Road Initiative due to border disputes with China.  Therefore, we understand (the targeting of the United States of America to countries with conflict with China to attract them to its alternative initiative, in contrast to the openness of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative to the whole world).

    Accordingly, we arrive at an important analysis that says that the term “rebuilding better in the American sense” ignores and neglects development initiatives to serve the people, a better world, which is (an American political initiative rather than a development one such as the projects of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative). Here it becomes clear to us that the American initiative for a better world appears to be (influenced by the slogans and policies of both US President “Joe Biden” and British Prime Minister “Boris Johnson”), Rebuilding Better is the slogan of the American campaign, but without setting specific agreed plans or a timetable for everyone.

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Russia and the United States Mapping Out Cooperation in Information Security

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Authors: Elena Zinovieva and Alexander Zinchenko*

The first committee of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly has adopted a draft resolution on international information security sponsored by Russia and the United States by consensus. The document has a record number of co-sponsors, with 107 countries putting their name to the document, although it is Russia and the United States that promote the document as its main sponsors. While the draft resolution still needs to go through a vote at the UN General Assembly this December, we can assume the vote will go more as less the same way it did in the committee.

The very fact that Russia and the United States came up with a joint draft resolution is a significant step forward in the bilateral cooperation in the field of international information security, especially given the fact that the United Nations hosted two competing platforms operating between 2019 and 2021, the Open‑Ended Working Group (the OEWG) established at Russia’s initiative and the Group of Governmental Experts (the GGE) led by the United States.

The joint draft resolution and a step towards an institutionalization of the dialogue came as a result of the agreements reached at the summit between President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Joe Biden of the United States on June 16, 2021. Four rounds of expert consultations have already taken place under the auspices of the security councils of the two countries, says Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States.

Besides, the Russian diplomat pointed to the successes in suppressing hacker activity and combating the criminal use of ICTs. The fight against cybercrime is one the main concerns voiced by the U.S. in this area, especially after the high-profile ransomware attacks on the energy and food industries in 2021. Subsequent dialogue led to a restoration of interaction in this area, which is occurring within the framework of the 1999 bilateral agreement on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, a document that allows the parties to exchange information on cybercriminals in pretrial detention, including in matters when it comes to collecting evidence of the person’s guilt. Cooperation between the two countries has involved the United States transferring materials for the legal suppression of the activities of such international cybergroups as Evil Corp, TrickBot and REvil. In turn, Russia has informed the American colleagues that Moscow has managed to thwart the activities of a criminal group using the Dyre/TrickBot malware and prosecute those responsible.

Additionally, there has now been greater interaction between Russian and U.S. centers for responding to computer incidents, the Federal Security Service’s National Computer Incident Response and Coordination Center (the NCIRCC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s US–CERT. However, the sides still harbor their concerns, pointing to the fact that there is room for cooperation to be fostered and enhanced. For example, most attacks on Russian infrastructure in 2020, the NCIRCC suggests, were carried out from the United States, Germany and the Netherlands. By the same token, the Western media continues to level mostly unsubstantiated accusations against Russia for its supposed involvement in cyberattacks, while cyber defence activities have become overly politicized.

Meaningful interaction, once it produces positive results, facilitates an atmosphere of trust between the parties, opening the door for closer cooperation to establish a universal international regime for information security, including with respect to the issues that are more global and complex in their scope. Russia’s agenda in bilateral negotiations is not limited to combating cybercrime—Sergey Ryabkov, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, has stressed—as it includes a broad range of issues relating to international information security, including military and political use of ICT, which is the major threat to international stability today. Moreover, since 1998, Russia has been calling for a global regulation of international interaction in information security and for rules to be formulated under the auspices of the United Nations to guide responsible behaviour of states in this area.

The dialogue and the joint work in this area have been reflected in the draft resolution, and it takes Russia’s priorities into account. Specifically, the document sets out the important principles and rules of the responsible behaviour of states in the information space, which Russia has been advocating for since 1998: encouraging the use of ICTs for peaceful purposes, preventing conflicts arising in its use, preventing the use of ICTs for terrorist and criminal purposes. The document places a particular emphasis on the importance of preventing cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure.

The draft resolution also welcomes the 2021 report adopted by the Open‑Ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security, making special note of how important the renewed group’s proceedings will be for 2021–2025. At the same time, the resolution suggests that the OEWG’s activities may well result in a binding UN document on international information security to be adopted.

It would seem the United States and Russia have sent a positive signal to the international community, recognizing the threats to international information security and acknowledging the importance of norms to be devised that would guide responsible behaviour of states in the information space. These norms would underpin the international regime for information security, as is envisioned by the Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on International Information Security adopted by the Russian President on April 12, 2021. The document aims to strengthen peace and international security, which are increasingly dependent on the advances in information and communications technologies. “The international community has proven in practice that it is capable of negotiating and working out acceptable solutions when it comes to resolving fundamental issues of national and international security,” noted Andrey Belousov, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

First published in our partner RIAC

*Alexander Zinchenko, Ph.D. in History, Lead Expert at the Centre for International Information Security, Science and Technology Policy at MGIMO University

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How the Republican Party Has Tightened U.S.-Taiwan Ties

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Taiwan, also known as the sovereign Republican of China (ROC), set up in the aftermath of the revolution in 1911 in China. The U.S. government recognized the ROC as the legal government of China till the end of 1978 and has thereafter maintained a non-diplomatic relationship with the island after its official recognition of People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legal government of China in 1979. Even though the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is deemed as “unofficial” by the U.S. Department of State, official contacts between the two governments based on the Taiwan Relations Act have never ceased, the most important of which includes U.S.-Taiwan arms sales. The “strategic ambiguity” embedded in the three U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqués in 1972, 1979 and 1982 allows the U.S. to maintain its involvement in the regional security of Taiwan Strait under a statutory framework despite PRC’s countless opposition.

America’s long-standing commitment to Taiwan and involvement in the region is not only bound by the jurisdiction of the Taiwan Relation Act, but has created “historical and ideological connections”. The support for Taiwan, especially when in the face of an increasingly aggressive China, is usually bipartisan in the U.S., but the Republican party seems to be more provocative when it comes to defending Taiwan from the threat of mainland China. Historically, Republican politicians usually stroke first to take a pro-Taiwan stance when disputes across the Taiwan Strait arose. Meanwhile, the ongoing “asymmetric polarization” in the U.S. – the Republican Party is turning conservative more than the Democratic Party turning liberal – is influencing Washington’s policies involving the Taiwan Strait. In 2020, conservative Republican senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz introduced the Taiwan Defense Act (TDA) and Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty (Taiwan SOS) Act respectively, both of which aimed at defending Taiwan from Chinese Communist Party’s oppression and even invasion. As Republicans are rapidly turning more conservative, is it likely that the U.S.-Taiwan relations will enter a honeymoon phase? And how that would affect U.S.-Taiwan arms sales?

Historical links between U.S. Republican Party and Taiwan

  1. 1949 – 1971: The China Lobby

Throughout the history U.S.-Taiwan relations, there have been multiple times when conservative Republican officials and public figures have worked at the forefront of campaigning for closer U.S.-Taiwan ties, often along with anti-PRC policies.The Republican Party’s intimacy with Taiwan dates back to 1949 when the Chinese Civil War ended. The defeat of Chiang Kai-shek split U.S. policymakers on the issue of whether to defend Taiwan if Communists from China initiated an attack. Democratic Secretary of State Dean Acheson was prone to abandon the island while Republican Senators Robert Taft and William Knowland, together with former Republican President Hoover adamantly demanded that America should protect Taiwan.

In the 1950s, the China Lobby, a broad network of people who shared the common goal of support Chiang Kai-shek’s recovery of mainland China from Mao Zedong-led communism, represented the apex of Taiwan’s success in America. It involved both Nationalist Chinese officials and right-wing American politicians who were mostly Republican politicians, including Senator Barry Goldwater, Jesse Helms, Senator Bob Dole, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher. Although not every supporter of Chiang actually cared about Taiwan issues since many of them simply took advantage of it to advance their own political agendas, the China Lobby, supported by the Republican Party, was capable of arguing for their cause aggressively and intimidating dissidents.

2.2 1971-1991: The Sino-US Normalization – Inner Conflicts among Republicans

Republican President Nixon won bipartisan support for his trip to China in 1972, which marked the end of U.S. efforts to isolate People’s Republic of China. Praises for Nixon’s China initiative came not only from leading congressional Democrats such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Mike Mansfield, but liberal communist James Reston. However, domestic controversy and criticism also arose and mostly came from conservative Republicans who complained that the preliminary rapprochement undermines America’s longtime ally – Taiwan. As the conclusion of Nixon’s visit to China, the “U.S.-PRC Joint Communique (1972)” was issued, which incurred opposition and even wrath of Nixon’s conservative Republican supporters who were upset by the gradual reduction in U.S. forces in Taiwan as implied by the communique.

A decade later, Republican President Ronald Reagan issued the “U.S.-PRC Joint Communique on Arms Sales” – also known as 1982 Communique – which clarified that the U.S. intended to gradually decrease its arms sales to Taiwan, but Reagan’s secret Memorandum on the 1982 Communique specified that the reduction in U.S. sales of arms to Taiwan was “conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences”. As a matter of fact, not only did the Reagan administration have Republicans in Congress reassured through his written clarification that the communique would not disadvantage Taiwan, but he continued to work to assuage potential criticism from the pro-Taiwan Republicans by selling twelve C-130H military transport aircraft to Taiwan in 1984.

2.3 1992-2016: The Gradual Revival of Republican-Taiwan Ties

In 1992, an agreement was reached by PRC and ROC governments in the name of “1992 Consensus” in which the commitment of “one China, respective interpretations” was shared and seen as the foundation of the rapprochement between the two sides of Taiwan Strait ever since. Douglas H. Paal, the Director of American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) between 2002 and 2006, buttressed the 1992 Consensus by emphasizing its critical importance to maintaining cross-strait peace in 2012, days before the presidential election of Taiwan. However, the former Republican Senator Frank H. Murkowski supported Tsai Ing-wen’s challenge to the 1992 Consensus – “Taiwan consensus”, and claimed that Tsai’ proposal “represents the will of the Taiwan people”.

Two years after the proposal of 1992 Consensus, the Clinton administration sought to upgrade the U.S.-Taiwan relations but still restricted high-level Taiwanese government officials’ access to U.S. visas. In the same year, Republicans swept the mid-term elections, which led to a growing movement in the Congress that favored closer relations with Taiwan. In 1995, Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House as well as the conservative Republican representative of Georgia stated that president of ROC should not only be able to visit the United States, but ROC itself deserved a seat in the United Nations.

The majority of House Republicans’ support for Clinton Administration’s efforts into bringing China into WTO was surprising, but harsh criticism against China also came from Republican politicians and public figures such as Representative Chris Smith, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and 1992 Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, most of whom were allies of conservative forces that held anti-PRC and pro-sentiment.

2.4 2017 – present: Increasingly Conservative Republicans and Closer U.S.-Taiwan Ties

After winning the 2016 U.S. president election, the Republican president-elect Donald Trump had a 10-minute conversation with the President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, an unprecedented move for a soon-to-be U.S. president and Taiwan’s top leader. This led many people to label Trump as a pro-Taiwan president and some even speculate his intention to support the independence of Taiwan.

The conservative Republican president’s policies toward Taiwan were as bold and aggressive as his domestic policies. Even though some may claim Trump’s attitude was “neither new nor Taiwan-specific”, it cannot be denied that his leadership, directly or indirectly, accelerated Republican Party’s right-leaning dash and that came with more pro-Taiwan policies that got under Beijing’ nerve. In 2018, Trump “gladly signed” the Taiwan Travel Act that encourages all levels of U.S. government officials to travel to Taiwan and high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the U.S.. The bill was introduced by the Republican representative Steven Chabot and won bipartisan support before being signed into law by Trump. In 2020, the Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Taiwan Defense Act (TDA) to ensure America’s obligations of defending Taiwan from Chinese Communist Party’s invasion. In the same year, the Republican Senator Ted Cruz recognized Taiwan’s National Day and introduced Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty (Taiwan SOS) Act.

The conservative Republican Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also known for his staunch support for Taiwan. During the final days of Trump’s presidency, Pompeo announced that the U.S. was lifting restrictions on U.S.-Taiwan relations by allowing U.S. government contacts with Taiwan despite an increasing risk of invoking Beijing to trigger a new cross-strait crisis. Even in the post-Trump era, Republicans does not seem to put a stop to their pro-Taiwan cause. In April 2021, the Republican Representative John Curtis introduced the “Taiwan International Solidary Act” to condemn China’s overreach of the sovereignty of Taiwan – a year after he authored the “Taipei Act” to strengthen Taiwan’s international diplomatic recognition and had it passed by bipartisan support. The ongoing partisan divide has yet to show a sign of deceleration after Trump left the office. Based on the redder Republican Party’s historical favor toward Taiwan, it is likely that there will be more Republicans initiating anti-PRC and pro-Taiwan policies, including increasing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Asymmetric Polarization in the U.S.

As early as in the 1990s, themes of polarization, division, and fragmentation started to be discussed by media and political commentators of American politics. The editor of the Columbia Journalism Review declared the conservative politician Patrick Buchanan’s speech at the Republican convention in 1992 a “culture war” and asserted “There is increasing polarization in American society over race, religion, family life, sex education and other social issues”. Similar perceptions include “the sharpening cultural polarization of U.S. society after the mid-1970” and the two dividing values camps in America – the “culturally orthodox” and the “culturally progress”. As shown in Figure 1, Republican legislators have been turning more conservative and Democratic legislators more liberal, which makes the Senate and House more divided than ever since the end of the first World War.

Figure 1: Increasing Polarization in Congress 1870-2010 based on DW-NOMINATE Index

Each point represents the discrepancy between two parties’ mean DW-NOMINATE scores. Higher values along the y-axis indicate stronger political polarization. (source: Moskowitz & Snyder, 2019)

The Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., with their ongoing conflicts commonly acknowledged, are not simply mirror images of each other. A wealth of studies find that the two parties are not moving away from the center at equal speeds. Scholars such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out that the phenomenon “asymmetric polarization” – Republicans have marched much further right than Democrats have moved left – is what has escalated partisan conflicts, which is also demonstrated by Figure 2. Nolan McCarty, the professor of Politics and Publica Affair of Princeton University, asserts that the polarization is “a Republican-led phenomenon where very conservative Republicans have replaced moderate Republicans and Southern Democrat”. The disproportionate share of rising polarization is thereby greatly explained by Republican party’s march toward the ideological extreme.

Figure 2: Asymmetric Polarization based on DW-NOMINATE Scores

(source: Moskowitz & Snyder, 2019)

Correlations between U.S. Asymmetric Polarization and US-Taiwan Relations and Arms Sales

Compared to 1991 when it had more than 20 countries as suppliers of arms, Taiwan only has the U.S. as its supplier nowadays. America, however, remains Taiwan’s sole and largest supplier of arms by taking advantaging of the strategic ambiguity of the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique of 1982 and the Taiwan Relations Act. More importantly, keeping arms sales to Taiwan can be used as political leverage by the U.S. for the U.S.-RPC relations. The U.S. military sales agreements with Taiwan amounted to $9 billion and delivers totaled $12.3 billion between 1991 and 1998. During the Bush and Obama Administration, U.S.-Taiwan arms sales were oftentimes delayed or cancelled due to concerns over relations with the RPC or U.S. domestic political disputes in Taiwan. However, to counter the cross-Strait military imbalance, the arms sales to Taiwan during the Trump Administration exceeded any previous administrations over the last four decades, including seven packages of arms sales in 2017, C-130 and F-16 fighter parts and accessories in 2018 and 2019. As shown by Figure 3, the overall volume of U.S.-Taiwan arms sales experiences an increase between 1981 and 2010 despite some fluctuations.

 Figure 3: U.S. Government Arms Deliveries to Taiwan 1981 – 2010 ($billion, values not adjusted for inflation)

The scatterplot is composed by the author of this article (source: Arms Control Association, n.d.)

For years, Republicans constantly praise the common value shared by the U.S. and Taiwan and never attempt to hide their stance on defending Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act should China violate the peaceful status quo across the strait. The U.S. support for Taiwan is oftentimes dominated by Republicans who tend to convert their anti-CCP ideology to pro-Taiwan policies. Those prominent Republican politicians include Senator Marco Rubio, Senator John McCain, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Republicans’ pro-Taiwan impression culminated when Donald Trump, the Republican then-President-elect, had a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the first official U.S.-Taiwan conversation since 1979. Throughout history, most prominent pro-Taiwan Republican politicians have shown a higher level of conservatism than their colleagues based on DW-NOMINATE ideology scores, including Senator Barry Goldwater, Senator Frank H. Murkowski, and Senator John Curtis, whom of which have made great contributions to tightening the relations between the U.S. and Taiwan. According to those Republicans, Taiwan is a loyal friend of the United States who deserves their strong support which includes the timely sale of defensive arms.

With Republicans’ accelerating right-leaning dashing, the anti-China sentiment has been rising and a large portion of it has been translated into pro-Taiwan actions. The Trump Administration’s hardline reprimand of CCP has starkly juxtaposed Taipei and Beijing in the current international political environment. This has enhanced the image of Taiwan as “a tiny democratic ally threatened by a totalitarian neighbor”, which has given Republicans more legitimacy to take aggressive actions to defend democracy of Taiwan by means of promoting more arms sales to the island.

However, is the asymmetric polarization the only reason behind the increasing U.S.-Taiwan arms sales? Even the polarization of Republicans seems to proceed at a faster pace, Democrats’ process of radicalization is tagging along. The boundary between liberal and left had almost vanished by the end of the 1980s, and the self-identifying radicals started to be replaced by leftists relabeled as “progressive”. The progressive movement of Democrats has been accelerated by “neoliberal globalism” and the “Cyber Left” – an amalgamation of hundreds of thousands of online organizations, blogs, Twitter and Facebook groups. A study of Brookings finds that the ratio of progressive non-incumbent House winners to total democratic candidates was as high as 41% in 2018, a huge increase compared to 26% in 2016 and 17% in 2014. There is a chance that Democrats could also show stronger support for Taiwan to help the island stand up to the presence of increasingly aggressive China, which is also consistent with their emphasis on a harmonious global community and “social responsibility”. It is true that notable Democrats such as Senator Bob Menendez, Senator Ted Kennedy or Speaker Nancy Pelosi do have been open about their appeal for Taiwan’s rightful place on the global stage and have never been shy about celebrating Taiwan’s democracy. Whereas, it is also progressive Democrats’ pro-globalization stance that makes them tend to downplay anti-Communism ideology and thus provide insufficient legislative support for Taiwan. Therefore, military support for Taiwan is still and will be dominated by the conservative Republicans who uphold anti-Communism ideology and value a strong military power to increase security and peace.

Conclusion

The history has proven the Republicans’ overall pro-Taiwan stance from the perspective of ideological similarity, strategic purposes and common values. The increasingly right-leaning Republicans’ support for Taiwan is not only confined to the legislative branch, but has permeated the executive branch. Being regarded as the most pro-Taiwan president in the US history, Donald Trump lifted U.S.-Taiwan arms sales “to the next level” by not only upgrading the quality of arms, but significantly changing the frequency and procedure of sales.

Biden’s ambition to reunite the U.S. is not likely to happen on a short notice given the highly divided American society in terms of income inequality, identity politics, race divergence and so on. The ongoing asymmetric polarization is only going to get worse before it gets better, and that would lead more conservative Republicans, instead of moderate ones, to take power in the foreseeable future. Against the backdrop of deteriorating U.S.-PRC relations, hawkish policies for China will become the mainstream among Republicans. That may not necessarily increase the arms sales to Taiwan under the Biden Administration, but the partisan divide in the current American political environment has made and will make pro-Taiwan policies one of the few agendas that can reach a bipartisan agreement. Therefore, that would neither leave sufficient scope for the Biden administration to adjust its Taiwan policy nor make its China policy too different than his predecessor despites his eager to fix the relations with the second largest economy.

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