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The Increasing Mistrust of Government is a Call for Grassroots Politics

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International politics is facing a tumultuous time. Across the West, governments are polarizing, as centre-moderates lose their seats to more radical candidates on both the left and right. It’s clear that we are living in an uncertain time, and the public vote is reflecting that anxiety. Threats from terrorism, the teetering economy, and environmental changes all play a role. However, by far the greatest offender is the universal lack of government transparency. The people know they’re being lied to, and they’re sick of it!

Exaggeration and falsehood have long been tolerated in the world of politics. This culture is so ingrained that removing it from the system is no straightforward task. On the other hand, the internet has provided the world with an invaluable tool; information is no longer a privilege of the rich, and political claims can be corroborated or refuted in mere seconds.

These two factors both act as fuel to the Grassroots movement. In numerous countries, people are disregarding the political class and, instead, looking to each other for the truth. Social media, blogs and an increased number of camera phones all allow the everyday person to be part of the political discussion unlike ever before. The question now is whether that conversation can translate into systematic change.

Most government systems are set up so no one person can truly affect change. In the US, this can be seen in the division of power between the Executive Office, Congress and the Supreme Court. While this is essential to ensure true democracy is never overthrown, it also has an adverse effect. If a Government official is faced with controversy, he merely disappears from the cabinet and out of public vision. Take, for example, the UK Parliament expenses scandal of 2009, which saw Conservative MP, Lord Hannington, quietly reinstated to the House of Lords, 12 months after he was convicted of false accounting. This glaring systemic flaw is only magnified by the ruling elites’ tendency to look after their own.

Scott Bloch was a controversial member of the Bush Administration who was accused of manipulating the system many times before he was finally charged with contempt of Congress in 2013. Alongside allegations that he wiped incriminating information from his computer, his sexist newsletter content and claims that he threw away legitimate whistle-blower cases also surfaced. Initially, Bloch faced voluntary resignation and 30-day prison time but was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea when he discovered this fact. Instead, Bloch received probation and, after complaints from watchdog groups, spent one day in jail, received a $5,000 fine and 200 hours community service.

Bloch’s case is not a rarity. The legal repercussions for misuse of power are hardly ever severe. This lack of accountability has created a culture in which lies and deceit are often overlooked. As average citizens have watched the incarceration rate grow by 20 percent worldwide since 2000, this inconsistency of justice has not gone unnoticed.

The last few years have seen this rise of political parties and candidates whose extreme views and controversial beliefs would not have been tolerated a decade ago. The far right has restarted a conversation about race, which harks back to eras long passed. However, with increasing lives lost to terrorists performing acts in the name of Islam, it’s understandable that many feel this dialogue is necessary.

In the UK, the effects of the migrant crisis saw citizens of port towns struggle to get their children into schools and doctor’s practices. It was this strain that resulted in places like Margate, Nigel Farage’s constituency, vote for UKIP MP’s in the 2015 general election.

Similarly, following an increasing number of devastating ISIS attacks in France, the support for National Front leader, Marine La Pen, grew significantly. Nowhere is this mounting feeling clearer than in the US, where Donald Trump and his controversial ‘Muslim ban’ secured one of the most surprising political victories in recent years. While accusations of racism surround all of these politicians, it’s clear that the majority of their followings are not voting on pure prejudice. In reality, this increasing support is an expression of fear, and a call for the political class to pay attention to these issues.

On the other side of the fence, many countries are seeing a rise in far-left candidates as a protest against the continual austerity. The international economy has been under strain since the banking crash of 2008. While many countries have seen ongoing cuts to public services, many people don’t feel any richer. Simultaneously, they can’t help but note the luxurious lifestyle many politicians lead, complete with tax cuts, expense accounts, and hefty bonuses. In the UK, the public sector has seen pay stall, while MP’s continue to enjoy an exponential increase.

Unsurprisingly, this has inspired significant support for socialist Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for an end to offshore accounts and tax breaks. It was similar crippling financial conditions that prompted Greece to vote in the radical-left party, Syriza. This lean towards socialism/marxism is a clear protest vote; a cry of disgust at the fact that everyday people are the ones paying for the government and banker’s mishandling of the country’s financial affairs.

Another key issue for both sides of the fence has been Government snooping. Since the Snowden leaks showed the world the true extent of the violations of our online privacy, many have highlighted the hypocrisy. While politicians and secret services grossly abuse their online power, citizens in some part of the world are being arrested for using proxy services to protect their privacy. US nationals rated blocks on illegal wiretappings as one of the most important issues under the Obama administration, yet no changes in legislation have occurred.

All of these situations paint the same picture: the people are trying to hold the government accountable on certain issues, but their only forum is to vote for radical candidates. The grassroots conversation is an essential voice to have in international politics, and appropriately cultivating it has already significantly affected the government front line. Perhaps the best example of this is in the recent UK general election. Jeremy Corbyn began the race as a laughing stock but ended up prompting the biggest Labour swing seen since 1945. The election also saw record numbers of voters, including an incredible 72 percent of young people.

This incredible surge by the youth vote was largely a result of Corbyn utilizing the full force of grassroots. After speaking with many underground musicians and counter-culture artists the #Grime4Corbyn campaign saw rappers and other street icons break through apathy in some of the most politically disenchanted parts of society. Bernie Sanders made a similar attempt during his race to be the US Democrat candidate. Although he could not ensure the same hold on power, his use of volunteers and financial contributors saw a campaign that was grassroots to its very core.

Both of these examples demonstrate the increasing need for more grassroots opportunity. As citizens continue to be turned off by the status quo, more and more and willing to put their money and their time into their political beliefs. This voice is one that politicians can no longer ignore; if that can’t properly cultivate its power, it could mean the end of their reign.

The End Of Political Apathy

It’s clear we live in a time where conventional politics is no longer tolerated. After decades of most Western governments hovering around the center, voters and politicians are demanding a change. Whether this has been a direct result of the current world problems – or a repercussion of the internet age and its ability to spread information and ideas – our political future has never looked so unsure.

However, for the ordinary voter, this time of uncertainty is a valuable opportunity to make your voice heard. You can opt to join local groups and parties, get involved with your preferred candidate or even just continue the political dialogue on social media. Each of these tactics has already proved successful for many groups and ideologies, and our culture of connectivity suggests that many future campaigns will also look to harness the power of grassroots. We have entered an era having your say has never been so important, and the chances of actually being heard have increased significantly.

The time for bottom-up politics is approaching, and expressing your beliefs is only going to become increasingly important as we continue to face a world of evolving threat and instability. Political decision-making is no longer isolated to the four walls of government; distrust of the system is starting to facilitate change on an international level.

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Americas

Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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Americas

Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea

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On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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Maximizing Biden’s Plan to Combat Corruption and Promote Good Governance in Central America

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Authors: Lauren Mooney and Eguiar Lizundia*

To tackle enduring political, economic and security challenges in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Biden administration is attempting to revitalize its commitment to the region, including through a four-year, $4 billion plan submitted in a bill to Congress.

In its plan, the White House has rightly identified the root causes of migration, including limited economic opportunity, climate change, inequality, and violence. Systemic corruption resulting from the weak rule of law connects and entrenches the root causes of migration, while the increased devastation brought about by climate change exacerbates economic hardship and citizen insecurity. 

The renewed investment holds promise: previous foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle has shown results, including by contributing to a reduction in the expected level of violence. As the Biden Administration finalizes and begins implementing its Central America strategy, it should include three pillars—rooted in lessons learned from within and outside the region—to maximize the probability that the proposed spending in U.S. taxpayer funds has its intended impact. 

First, the Biden administration should deliver on its promise to make the fight against corruption its number one priority in Central America by supporting local anti-graft actors. The sanctions against officials which the United States is considering  are a step in the right direction, but lasting reform is best accomplished through a partnership involving regional or multilateral organizations. Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (CICIG) model was relatively successful until internal pushback and dwindling U.S. advocacy resulted in its dismantlement in 2019. Though Honduras’ equivalent was largely ineffective, and El Salvador’s recently launched version is marred by President Bukele’s campaign against judicial independence, there is room for learning from past mistakes and propose a more robust and mutually beneficial arrangement. The experience of Ukraine shows that while external engagement is no silver bullet in eliminating corruption, the role of foreign actors can lead to tangible improvements in the anti-corruption ecosystem, including more transparent public procurement and increased accountability for corrupt politicians.

In tandem with direct diplomatic pressure and helping stand up CICIG-like structures, the U.S. can harness lessons from prior anticorruption efforts to fund programs that address other aspects of graft in each country. This should involve empowering civil society in each country to monitor government compliance with anti-corruption laws and putting pressure on elected officials to uphold their commitments. While reducing impunity and improving transparency might not automatically persuade Central Americans to stay, better democratic governance will allow the three Northern Triangle nations to pursue policies that will end up expanding economic opportunities for residents. As Vice President Harris recently noted, any progress on addressing violence or food insecurity would be undermined if the environment for enabling corruption remains unchanged.

Second, the United States should support local initiatives to help reverse the deterioration of the social fabric in the region by expanding access to community decision-making. Given the high levels of mistrust of government institutions, any efforts to support reform-minded actors and stamp out corruption at the national level must be paired with efforts to promote social cohesion and revitalize confidence in subnational leaders and opportunities. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and economic deprivation erode social cohesion and undermine trust in democratic institutions. The U.S. government and practitioners should support civic efforts to build trust among community members and open opportunities for collective action, particularly in marginalized areas. A key component of this is expanding sociopolitical reintegration opportunities for returning migrants. In so doing, it is possible to help improve perceptions of quality of life, sense of belonging, and vision for the future. While evidence should underpin all elements of a U.S. Strategy for Central America, it is particularly important to ensure social cohesion initiatives are locally-owned, respond to the most salient issues, and are systematically evaluated in order to understand their effects on migration.

Lastly, the U.S. should take a human-rights based approach to managing migration and learn from the pitfalls associated with hardline approaches to stem migration. Policies rooted in a securitized vision have a demonstrable bad record. For example, since 2015, the European Union undertook significant measures to prevent irregular migration from Niger, including by criminalizing many previously legitimate businesses associated with migration and enforced the imposition of legal restrictions to dissuade open and legal migration. Not only did this violate freedom of movement and create adverse economic consequences, but it also pushed migration underground, with individuals still making the journey and encountering significant threats to their lives, security and human rights.

A welcome realignment

Acknowledging the role of push factors is key to responding to migration effectively. Most importantly, putting political inclusion and responsive governance at the center is critical for ensuring vulnerable populations feel rooted in their community. A more secure, prosperous, and democratic Central America will pay dividends to the United States not only in terms of border security, but also in the form of improved cooperation to tackle global challenges, from climate change to the rise of China. 

*Eguiar Lizundia is the Deputy Director for Technical Advancement and Governance Advisor at IRI

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