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The Zigzagging Personnel Policy of Donald Trump

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It will soon be eighteen months since Donald Trump, the most eccentric, provocative and authoritarian leader in U.S. history, took up office as President of the United States. He came to power as a fighter against the Washington political elite and became a symbol of the protectionist, anti-globalist and anti-expansionist moods long simmering within American society. He read those moods and offered simple, understandable, quick and radical methods of resolving the problems that had been accumulating for decades.

Despite the mass protests, the opposition of Congress, the courts and the Washington bureaucracy, the unwillingness of many federal officers to serve in the billionaire’s administration, the malicious media attacks, the inquiries into the “Russian connection” and the looming threat of impeachment, Trump’s presidency is still pretty much alive and kicking, to the surprise of many. He has managed, although not without difficulty, to fit into the existing political landscape and become an integral part of it.

The original top tier of the Trump administration was represented by a slapdash Conservative coalition held together by libertarian values, one that comprised several rival groups that had emerged during the 2016 campaign: 1) Trump’s closest associates (his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his lawyer Michael Cohen and billionaire Carl Icahn); 2) a group of influential retired generals (James N. Mattis, John F. Kelly, Joseph Keith Kellogg Jr. and Herbert Raymond McMaster); 3) organizers and activists of the right-wing Conservative Tea Party movement, which had provided Trump with the core of his voters (Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Marc Short, Betsy DeVos, Tom Price and Kellyanne Conway); 4) representatives of business circles (Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross and Steve Schwarzman); and 5) traditionalist right-wing Conservatives who provided Trump with ideological support (Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Reince Priebus, Stephen Miller, Peter Navarro, etc.).

Due to its fragmented and incoherent nature, the Trump administration was extremely contradictory and unstable from the very start. Another negative factor was that many of its members had chanced onto Trump’s team without the requisite political and life experience; they were not prepared to perform as senior government officials in a very tense situation on both domestic and international political fronts. Many of them were appointed after other candidates had opted out.

One Resignation after Another

The first days of Trump’s presidency were darkened by events that caused many observers serious concerns. Cobbled together from people who were too different from one another and not always properly trained for their roles, the new administration started developing cracks. Differences mounted not only among the various factions, but also among the presidential advisors. Pieced together with the use of several heterogeneous groups, the administration started falling apart surprisingly quickly, shedding the president’s closest assistants for various reasons. The first one to go was Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (retired), Trump’s national security advisor, who stepped down on February 13, 2017, just 23 days after his appointment, amid allegations of his suspicious contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

This was followed by the dismissals of several high-ranking members of the administration. James Comey was fired as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on May 9. The summer of 2017 proved particularly rich in dismissals. Rich Higgins, the director of strategic planning at the National Security Council’s strategic planning office, was forced out on July 21. On the same day, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer announced his resignation. Assistant press secretary Michael Short bowed out on July 25. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci were let go in late July. The latter had only been at his post for 10 days. Scaramucci later claimed that a conspiracy was in the works against Trump.

Richard Trumka, President of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), quit Trump’s manufacturing council on August 15. Steve Bannon, one of the most infamous members of Trump’s administration, stepped down as the White House Chief Strategist on August 18. On that same day, Special Advisor to the President on Regulatory Reform, Carl Icahn, also left his post. Almost all members of the president’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned on August 19 due to their strong disagreement with Trump’s policies. Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka left on August 25.

The administration began to disintegrate. It appeared that the ominous forecasts voiced in Washington during the 2016 electoral campaign to the effect that Trump’s only legacy would be internal discord, chaos and confusion were coming true. Indeed, such an unstable, fluid and constantly reshuffling administration was unusual for America.

Mass resignations of senior administration members continued in 2018. These included Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Dina Powell and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks. In March alone, two key members of the foreign political wing bowed out: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced in his post by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, while National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster was superseded by super-hawk John Bolton. Also in March, Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn left the administration. Cohn had criticized the protectionist slant in the president’s policy, in particular his decision to introduce customs duties on aluminium and steel imports.

The Dismissal of Rex Tillerson

The process of approving Tillerson’s candidacy in the Senate in January 2017 was not easy. The main accusation against him was his links with Russia. The former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Exxon Mobil, who had been developing business ties with Russia and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship, was considered one of President Vladimir Putin’s American friends, so his ability to confront Russia as secretary of state was called into question.

Tillerson chose the only possible tactic, recognizing Russia as a serious adversary under Western sanctions while arguing that a certain level of dialogue with Moscow was still necessary. However, his intentions regarding Russia fell victim to the ongoing investigation into Moscow’s alleged intervention in the U.S. election, so they never materialized. Tillerson, who did not try to conceal his generally positive attitude towards Russia, came to be viewed as a mild and weak politician struggling under a load of prior experience and new circumstances. His behaviour obviously ran counter to the outspoken anti-Russian position of United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, who view Russia as an aggressor and an unreliable partner. Trump was also dissatisfied with Tillerson’s stance.

Tillerson and Trump had different views – not only on Russia’s intervention in the U.S. election, but also on the United States’ approaches to Iran and North Korea. The secretary of state, whose authority was consistently shrinking, was evidently irritated by Trump’s harsh, ill-conceived and threatening statements addressed to these countries. The two men failed to agree on a common approach to Afghanistan. Tillerson was against the idea of building the United States’ military presence and continuing military actions in the country, something on which Trump insisted.

During his brief stint in the Department of State, Tillerson, much like Trump, developed a specific behavioural pattern: his stern and sometimes belligerent statements would be interspersed with positive and even peaceful comments. This periodically gave cause for dangerous, misleading illusions.

Nevertheless, a peace-loving, moderate, balanced and thoughtful Tillerson, with his disposition for negotiations, was the odd man out in the Trump administration. The differing approaches to tackling problems and conflicting takes on the nature of those problems were aggravated by the barely-disguised personal animosity between the two men. Many suspected that the 69th Secretary of State would soon be replaced (and Tillerson’s dismissal had been mulled over since autumn of 2017). Trump’s tweet about Tillerson’s dismissal, written in the president’s signature style, came as a logical finale to the drawn-out drama.

To be fair, such situations have happened before in the U.S. state administration system. Based on checks and balances allowing the reconciliation of differing interests, that system is inevitably conducive to the emergence of rivalling centres of power and department heads opposed to one another within the presidential administration. This often results in fights for access to the president, and even to irreconcilable confrontations [1].

The Appointment of Mike Pompeo

Back in the summer of 2017, Mike Pompeo was believed to be the most probable next United States Secretary of State. Unlike Tillerson, the Director of the CIA was much closer to the authoritarian Trump, both ideologically and politically. Having switched to politics in 2010 after the end of his business career, Pompeo, a sympathizer of the Tea Party movement, came to be a leading figure in the ultra-right Conservative wing. He supported Trump in 2016 and was appointed Director of the CIA under the new president. In this new post, Pompeo clearly demonstrated his right-wing Conservative sentiments: he spoke against the nuclear deal with Iran, criticized the proponents of talks with North Korea, advocated electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens and defended the tortures practised at CIA black sites.

As the new Secretary of State, Pompeo is undoubtedly a more professional, reliable and unwavering conduit of the president’s policy than Tillerson, who had a habit of thinking before acting.

The Dismissal of Herbert McMaster

Another high-profile dismissal involved Lieutenant General Herbert McMaster, Trump’s National Security Advisor. McMaster participated in virtually all the major modern military conflicts involving the United States and had earned a reputation as a well-rounded individual and a reserved and thoughtful officer with a strategic mind. To everyone’s surprise, McMaster proved the only member of the Trump administration whose appointment was hailed by both the president’s supporters and his opponents. Many expected him to provide the uniting momentum the new team needed so badly.

McMaster’s view of Russia was largely in line with the predominant opinions within the U.S. political elite. He believed that Putin was deliberately pursuing an aggressive policy aimed at dismantling and revising the new world order that had emerged following the Cold War. On the other hand, he was generally restrained and, unlike Trump, tried to avoid half-baked decisions and overreactions.

It was up to the generals in the presidential administration to maintain at least some appearance of discipline and order amid the confusion generated, especially in the early days, by Trump himself with his chaotic thinking and ill-conceived actions.

The Appointment of John Bolton

In the most controversial and symbolic appointment yet, McMaster was replaced by John Bolton, an infamous uncontrollable hawk. Bolton’s long career with the Department of State and the Department of Justice under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush provided him with a springboard for furthering his political career, which truly flourished as Under Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration during the “war on terror.”

A proponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bolton radicalized the United States’ foreign policy in an effort to integrate the country’s overseas interests into the “war on terror,” which became a universal vehicle for strengthening Washington’s global dominance. As the United States Ambassador to the UN in 2005–06, he did his utmost to make U.S. unilateralism policy, which was criticized even by America’s allies, a reality.

Bolton’s excessive asperity and conservatism deterred many. A consistent critic of the United States’ adversaries (Iran, North Korea and Russia), he dismissed even the possibility of seeking a compromise with them. The escalation of tensions with Russia, in addition to Trump’s threats towards North Korea, aimed at gleaning concessions from Kim Jong-un, created an appropriate atmosphere for renovating the presidential administration and taking the ultra-Conservative Bolton on board.

New Director of the CIA Gina Haspel

The top-level reshuffles in the Trump administration resulted in a career boost for Deputy Director of the CIA Gina Haspel, whom the president offered the post of director. If approved by the Senate, Haspel will become the first female director in the history of the CIA.

Haspel had previously headed a black site in Thailand and is still being accused of having organized the torture of terrorist suspects kept there. She had also served as deputy director for foreign intelligence and covert action in the National Clandestine Service. This career path provides some background for the portrait of the new CIA director.

The constantly zigzagging personnel policy, as well as the recent reshuffles, which mainly affected the foreign political wing of the Trump administration, indicate not just swift personal shifts, but also an evolution of the country’s foreign policy towards a tougher strain of offensive pragmatism amid the continuing inquiry into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election and the intensifying conflict with Moscow.

The key factor in the current situation is certainly the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, which is believed to have been orchestrated by Russia. The subsequent anti-Russian actions in the form of the expulsion of diplomats from a number of leading Western countries and new U.S. sanctions against Moscow are merely another escalation in the dangerous and rapidly worsening United States–Russia confrontation.

[1] Valery Garbuzov. Alexander Haig, or Three Careers of a General. Moscow, 2004.

First published at our partner RIAC

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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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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