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Is America First?

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Late last year, President of the United States Donald Trump presented the country’s new National Security Strategy. The unveiling was handled with the kind of pomp typical of the current U.S. head of state. Nevertheless, the first reaction to the new Strategy, both within the country and abroad, proved generally lukewarm. There are reasons for this.

First, the new Strategy, like the ones before it, is a result of complex bureaucratic agreements and compromises between different departments. As a rule, such agreements and compromises result in the dilution of the wording, and sometimes even in outward inconsistencies in the final document. Experience suggests that, in practice, the National Security Strategy is rather a set of broad guidelines than a concrete action plan.

Second, a more detailed look at the text of the National Security Strategy makes it clear that the new document lacks originality. The entire document boils down to a set of measures that are intended to preserve the leading role of the United States in the world. But has this not been the goal of all U.S. administrations ever since the end of the Cold War? Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in particular sought leadership supported by military might, whereas Barack Obama wanted to impose partnership relations on other countries that would serve Washington’s interest first and foremost.

In other words, the new National Security Strategy has proved unable to either mitigate the political tensions within the United States or allay the international community’s serious concerns about the current U.S. administration’s global policy.

The international situation is delicate in a sense that all kinds of security threats continue accumulating and require urgent collective to address them. However, not only is the leading global power unprepared for such collective efforts, it is, on the contrary, consistently demonstrating a willingness to act unilaterally, disregarding the interests of other countries, including its allies. This follows not only from the National Security Strategy, but also from Washington’s actions. The most telling recent example was Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

At the same time, there can be no doubt that for a long time to come the United States will remain one of the leading global players whose constructive input will be required, or even indispensable, in resolving many burning problems the international community faces.

The logical next question is how to build relations with the United States in these circumstances. Russia is not the only country asking itself this question. There can be no simple and unequivocal answer. At the same time, it might be useful to look at how individual states went about building relations with the new U.S. administration during the first year of Trump’s presidency.

European countries were at first taken aback by the insolence of the new president. However, they gradually came to the realization that the best approach at this stage would be a flexible combination of a firm stance on matters of principle with active behind-the-scenes work with the U.S. administration at various levels of Washington’s bureaucratic machinery. European countries united against Washington’s attempts to pull out from the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran, and opposed the United States’ initiative to introduce new sanctions against Russia that would have directly affected European interests. Europe also refused to support Trump’s proposal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and distanced itself from the White House’s belligerent rhetoric towards North Korea. On the other hand, European leaders use every opportunity to voice their desire to preserve and strengthen allied relations with the United States.

China has reacted to the US administration’s attacks with little more than official statements, and seeks to avoid public controversies with the White House over specific issues. The country’s leader, Xi Jinping, visited the United States and treated Trump with utmost respect during the latter’s visit to Beijing. In the course of the talks, Xi Jinping made it clear that, even though China is not going to compromise on its interests, it is prepared for mutually beneficial cooperation, something the United States should be equally interested in.

As for the United States’ two closest neighbours, Mexico and Canada, their initial emotional reaction to Trump’s threats to introduce protectionist measures and revise the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement gradually transformed into diplomatic talks. It is still too early to guess where these talks will lead, but the crisis phase has been overcome for now.

These and other examples indicate that as long as the acute domestic political crisis in the United States continues and the Trump administration seeks to develop its own foreign policy and ways to implement it, the majority of countries prefer to take a wait-and-see approach. They are avoiding direct confrontation with Washington, while making it clear that, if the concept of “America first” is indeed becoming the foundation of U.S. foreign policy, then other countries also have interests they do not intend to compromise on. It is still too early to predict the results of this “silent” standoff, but the results of Trump’s first year in office demonstrate that such tactics can at least offset the destruction of the existing international system and avoid an outright confrontation between the United States and other major global players.

Russia’s relations with the United States under Trump administration are aggravated by a number of additional factors that do not exist in Washington’s relations with other countries. In addition to the well-known disagreements on some key aspects of international relations, the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by Washington over the past several years with overwhelming support from the United States Congress present a serious obstacle to the normalization of bilateral ties. Unfortunately, relations with Russia became one of the primary international and domestic political issues for the United States in 2017, which further complicates the possibility of Washington taking any constructive steps in its interaction with Moscow.

Is this a totally hopeless situation? It is certainly not.

In my capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, I took part in the organization and hosting of President George W. Bush’s first official visit to Russia in May 2002. A Joint Declaration of the Presidents of Russia and the United States was signed as a result of the visit and read: “We are partners and we will cooperate to advance stability, security, and economic integration, and to jointly counter global challenges and to help resolve regional conflicts.” This statement appears dubious today, against the backdrop of the profound crisis in U.S.–Russia relations. Nevertheless, if we look beyond the current differences, which are situational to some extent, we will see that the two countries can, and must, be partners in the fight against terrorism, in nuclear non-proliferation, in settling regional conflicts and in addressing many other problems related to the security of the two states and of the world in general. Concrete facts illustrate that this is possible even in the current complicated situation. The most recent example is the assistance provided by the CIA to the Russian special services in preventing a major terrorist attack on St Petersburg shortly before the New Year celebrations. Everything is possible when there is political will!

Today, the entire world watches anxiously, but hopefully, to see how U.S.–Russia relations will develop moving forward. Everyone understands that any significant step taken by the two countries to meet each other halfway will lead to positive changes in the world and contribute to the strengthening of international security.

To a great degree, U.S.–Russia relations have historically depended on the personal relations between the leaders of the two countries. Each new chapter in cooperation between Moscow and Washington would begin with a summit meeting where the parties would agree on several fundamental issues, alleviate some of the mutual criticisms and old grudges and set relations on a new development course.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to implement this time-tested model has thus far failed to present itself under the current U.S. administration. Trump has held one-on-one meetings with virtually all world leaders. But not the Russian president. We may therefore assume that the President of the United States’ ability to conduct an independent policy with regard to Russia will continue to be extremely limited.

If this is indeed so, then it would be wise to use every opportunity to maintain and possibly expand dialogue. Not only with the executive branch, but with legislators as well. Not just with the Department of State, but with the other departments Russia cooperates with. Not just with Washington officials, but with the numerous independent analytical centres, foundations and public organizations. This dialogue will certainly be difficult and sometimes unpleasant, and there are no guarantees that overnight breakthroughs and radical changes for the better will be made. However, it is only through such dialogue that the foundation of new relations between Moscow and Washington can be laid.

For the American people, America is first. For Russian people, it is Russia that comes first. This was the case long before the Trump administration came to power, and it will remain so after this administration leaves. History demonstrates that this factor is not an obstacle to cooperation, provided that the parties respect each other’s legitimate interests and are guided by the long-term interests of universal security.

First published in our partner RIAC

President of the Russian International Affairs Council. Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RF MFA). Russian Academy of Sciences Corresponding Member. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.

Americas

How COVID- 19 weakened American leadership

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Unlike Hollywood movies where Americans have the lead in saving the world, the crisis of the corona virus pandemic has shown the opposite. The first major test showed that the American health care system was inferior to the Russian one, created during the Cold War. And while the Kremlin has managed to provide real assistance to a number of European countries, certainly using it for propaganda purposes, Washington’s actions can be characterized as a sign of weakness.

In the race for a quality vaccine, Moscow has shown that it is ahead of its competitors, and despite the rigorous blockade, more and more European countries want the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which proved to be better than Pfizer and Modern. The United States and Britain have experienced a major slap in the field of science, but from their perspective even more on propaganda. Attempts by Western countries to maintain a monopoly on vaccines in Europe, despite the fact that citizens are dying in large numbers because of that policy, showed how far American diplomacy is ready in sacrificing people in the Western Hemisphere due to the conflict with Russia.

Unlike Western vaccines, which cause numerous complications, Sputnik vaccine was rated as far better, which resulted in large agreements between Russia and foreign countries regarding sales and joint production.At the same time, there are simply no reports about similar complications caused by the Russian vaccine, even though the European Commission and Brussels have been keeping a close eye on the effects of its use in European countries, including Serbia and Hungary, which have already taken the first deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine. What is the reason for the US demonstrating its weakness? How come that in the midst of the epidemic Washington was unable to find the resources to demonstrate its readiness to lend a helping hand to its European allies? Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the Americans simply freaked out.

The truth is, the US healthcare system is rather decentralized and unorganized. People with good health insurance have little to worry about. However, in a situation of a pandemic, the US medical facilities are pretty hard to manage, so one has to do it manually. Compounded by the general atmosphere of panic and the fact that the poorest strata of society, who have no health insurance and constitute the main risk zone (obesity due to malnutrition, advanced chronic diseases and other COVID-inducing conditions), the system simply collapsed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Trump administration tried to keep maximum resources at home.

Moreover, the businessman-turned-president, who had openly spoken about “exporting security,” never missed a chance to make it clear to his allies that US assistance is never free. As a result, he was replaced by Biden, a Democrat who advocates maximum support for all democratic forces. However, Democrats usually provide moral or military support, but they have proved equally unprepared to line up any serious assistance to the countries hit the hardest by the pandemic.Moreover, it was actually at the suggestion of the United States and the UK that the COVAX system, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable (but not free) access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries in need, stalled. It turned out (who might have guessed?) that both the US-developed Moderna and the British AstraZeneca vaccines are primarily needed by their own electorates, and only then by countries that need them, but are unable to produce their own vaccine.

Meanwhile, India with a population of over 1 billion,managed to fulfill its obligations, and Russia is ready to launch the production of vaccines in Europe. However, bending under Washington’s pressure, the European Union has banned the import of Russian, Indian and Chinese vaccines, without bothering to explain the reasons for this ban.A country, claiming world domination cannot lead in everything, of course.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the healthcare systems of many European countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, are way better that what they now have in the United States. That being said, the world leader still bears full responsibility for its allies and cannot leave them to their own devices, not only in the event of a military conflict, but also in the midst of a pandemic. However, this is exactly what it did…

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Americas

U.S. Gov’t. Walks Back Lie Against Russia But Says that Russia Must Be Apologizing

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

On April 15th, the Biden Administration, which has been saying that Russia probably placed a “bounty” on corpses of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, said that, actually, “U.S. intelligence only had ‘low to moderate’ confidence in the story,” but “This information puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior.” For good measure, the U.S. Government has now added yet more sanctions against Russia.

Adam Rawnsley and Spencer Ackerman of The Daily Beast headlined on the 15th, “U.S. Intel Walks Back Claim Russians Put Bounties on American Troops”, and reported that “Translated from the jargon of spyworld, that [statement from the Biden Administration] means the intelligence agencies have found the story is, at best, unproven — and possibly untrue.”

This lie had first been broadcasted on the front page of the New York Times on 26 June 2020, under the headline “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says”, and they reported that:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter. The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

The following day, the Washington Post bannered “Russian operation targeted coalition troops in Afghanistan, intelligence finds”, and reported that:

A Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, including U.S. and British troops, in a striking escalation of the Kremlin’s hostility toward the United States, American intelligence has found. The Russian operation, first reported by the New York Times, has generated an intense debate within the Trump administration about how best to respond to a troubling new tactic by a nation that most U.S. officials regard as a potential foe but that President Trump has frequently embraced as a friend, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive intelligence matter.

Repeating their performances regarding numerous other such lies — including against Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and threat of “a mushroom cloud that was allegedly only 6 months away on 7 September 2002 — America’s trashpapers of record (the nation’s two ‘top’ ‘news’-papers) have done yeoman’s work for Lockheed Martin and other ‘defense’ industry corporations, by deceiving the American public to support a military-industrial government of perpetual war and of fake dangers, when the real dangers against the American people continue to grow domestically and to rot away America’s economy. 

The beneficiaries of this scam are called America’s “Deep State,” and they rule here no matter whether serving Republican Party billionaires or Democratic Party billionaires.

This scam on behalf of America’s billionaires is called “neoconservatism,” but it really is only American imperialism, and it has already destroyed Vietnam, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine, and many other countries. More gradually, however, it has been destroying America itself.

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Americas

Biden’s Dilemma: Caught Between Israel and Iran

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

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.

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