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America’s Mood Swing Diplomacy

M Waqas Jan

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Much has been written, both within and outside the US, on the extremely polarizing and divisive nature of Mr. Donald Trump’s presidency. Controversial, sensational and often the center of headlines himself, President Trump has left in his wake a plethora of shattered norms and conventions that have otherwise long been associated with the US presidency. Of all these shattered conventions however, none are more apparent than his purportedly unique take on US Foreign Policy characterized by his mantra, ‘America First.’

Be it the United States’ long-standing allies as part of NATO, neighboring trading partners such as Canada and Mexico, or even its more complex web of relations with countries in key regions such as the Middle East and South Asia; President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has led to a radical revaluation of the way the US is pursuing its overseas interests with widespread repercussions.

This radical shift is perhaps most apparent in President Trump’s own statements and comments on countries as diverse as France, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where leaders have been often left flabbergasted by the unpredictability, obtuseness, and grave implications of a sitting US president’s sudden barbs against their countries. These include rancorous statements on for instance, France’s contributions to NATO, illegal immigrants from Mexico, Saudi Arabia’s importance as an arms importer (despite their deteriorating human rights records), and the most recent insinuations on how Pakistan ‘hasn’t done a  damned thing for the US.’

These statements have been made amidst a series of off the cuff interviews and out of perhaps Mr. Trump’s own compulsion to tweet official US policy stances from his personal twitter account. Specifically with regard to Pakistan, these include the President’s tweets from earlier this year in January where he accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to terrorists, and giving the US nothing but lies and deceit in return for billions of dollars of US aid.

Despite the tenuous nature of Pak-US relations over the last few years, President Trump’s statements while characteristic of his over the top nature, mark a fresh departure from the fine line that had previously characterized US diplomacy towards Pakistan. The US’s previous overtures of asking Pakistan to ‘do more’ via a measured carrot and stick approach seems to have been wholly done away with, replaced by public outrage and vitriol by none other than the president himself.

However, apart from the President’s statements the US has still shown a willingness to engage and move forward as apparent by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad earlier in September, followed by his meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the sidelines of the UN summit in New York. These were followed by another recent visit by a mid-level US delegation to Islamabad earlier this month. These meetings still underscore the key role Pakistan is expected to play in the Afghanistan peace process, as well as in a number of key security issues that remain at the center of US interests across the wider region.

Hence, while the US President appears to have taken an overtly hard-line against Pakistan, other key officials and spokespersons have continued to employ a more measured tone that while setting clear expectations from the Pakistani government, still nevertheless acknowledge Pakistan as a key partner with an important role to play in the region.

This discrepancy between the President’s apparent hard-line stance versus the State department’s ‘business as usual’ tone towards Pakistan, does make one wonder then the extent to which the President’s statements are in fact representative of actual US foreign policy. While many observers, even in his own government, have accused him of continuously pandering to his constituents even in the face of key issues pertaining to US National Security and Foreign Policy, there is consequently a definite lack of structure and cohesiveness that has so far differentiated other arms of the US government from the White House during this Presidency. Not to mention the unending intrigue currently plaguing the White House; the revolving door that has seen a number key staffers and officials being fired and replaced and the President’s own increasingly fragile hold over power in the face of an ongoing Federal investigation, that carries with it the threat of impeachment. US Foreign Policy under Donald Trump has thus so far veered from routine practicability to outright nonsensicality, all with major repercussions for the entire world.

Based on these observations, one can imagine how difficult it must be for the numerous government officials, specialists and advisers pervading throughout the US bureaucracy to be continuously managing the international fallout from the President’s numerous gaffes and impulsive statements. After all, there have been numerous reports of divisiveness and major disagreements within the White House and key departments within the US government. Instead it seems that the few lobbyists and close advisers that have the President’s ear these days are the ones who are using his persona as a loose cannon and propensity to deliver over the top statements to their advantage; helping push their own agendas at the expense of wider US interests. For a US president that lacks objectivity and is so easily swayed, it has become increasingly difficult for countries such as Pakistan that have earned his ire, to meaningfully engage with him on any level directly.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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Trump’s New Wall? Mexico’s Southern Border

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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For much of modern history, Mexico defined itself in opposition to the United States. In recent years, the two countries stepped up cooperation on almost all relevant issues, and the two nations are now deeply intertwined politically, economically and culturally. This is bound to change. After months of ignoring Donald Trump’s provocations, López Obrador reacted rapidly to Trump’s shakedown and agreed to a number of resolutions of extraordinary scope and urgency: the new Mexican administration agreed to deploy the country’s federal police to its southern border to crack down on immigration; and opened the door to the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy that would turn Mexico into a Third Safe Country in less than a month from now.

As stated in the agreement, Mexico would take in all the refugees that the US decides to send back to Mexico to await resolution of their asylum process. This could take years, given the substantial immigration backlog in American courts. The agreement goes further: Mexico is responsible for the provision of education, health care and employment for such refugees. This could easily lead to a serious humanitarian crisis that Mexican institutions will be unable to deal with.

This approach contradicts previous Mexican presidential vows for regional development and humanitarian relief rather than confrontation and enforcement. Conditions on the ground in Mexico are far harsher than the Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister, Marcelo Ebrard and the President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, would like to admit, and this is partly due to the current administration’s miscalculations: López Obrador has dramatically cut the budget for governmental agencies responsible for managing refugees and processing removals. Mexican border towns are also ill-equipped for handling transient migrant populations; and Mexico also faces other more systematic challenges, such as corruption and lack of rule of law enforcement. The new policy agreed with the American government is likely to result in a significant increase in claims filed for asylum in Mexico. Mexico’s immigration bureaucracies are utterly overwhelmed, and López Obrador’s misguided budget cuts have exacerbated their failings.

Mexico’s immigration policy is now bound by an immoral and unacceptable deal that will effectively turn Mexico into Trump’s border wall. The global system for the protection of refugees is based on the notion of shared responsibility among countries. It is very dangerous for the US to use Mexico as a pawn to set an example and ignore its international responsibility. This agreement also violates international law on refugees: Mexico is a life-threatening country for undocumented migrants. Human trafficking, recruitment for organised criminal organisations, abduction, extortion, sexual violence, and disappearances are some of the issues migrants face in Mexico. Finally, Mexico’s National Guard, the agency that will be in charge of monitoring the southern border, was created by López Obrador to tackle domestic crime. Its members have no training nor knowledge on immigration matters. It is an untested new military force that could end up creating more problems than the ones it is trying to solve.  Deploying agents to the border could also have a high political cost for the president.

The agreement with Trump gives López Obrador 45 days to show progress. If Mexico fails, Mexico will be forced to set in motion some version of Safe Third Country agreement, or face further tariff bullying from the US. This deal has been sold by the new Mexican administration as a victory over the US. More migrants, less money, extreme violence and a recalcitrant, unpredictable northern neighbour are the ingredients for a potential, impending refugee crisis, not a diplomatic victory.

Could Mexico have taken a different approach? Yes. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs would exacerbate the underlying causes of immigration in the region and do nothing to address it. His bullying to force Mexico to crack down on immigration was a cheap electoral ploy to mobilise its base with a view to winning the 2020 elections. This is nothing new. Trump is not seeking a solution; he is seeking a political gain. He built his first presidential campaign on an anti-Mexico and an anti-immigrant rhetoric. It worked in 2016, and he is planning to repeat the same formula.

The Mexican administration lack of knowledge on diplomatic matters, and their inability to play politics let a golden opportunity go. Using trade to bludgeon Mexico into compliance with an immigration crack down makes no sense: Mexico is not responsible for the increase in migratory flows. Central America’s poverty and violence trace back to American policies in the 1980s. Mexico is not responsible either for America’s famously dysfunctional immigration system. Trump’s economic threats against Mexico may not even have been legal: both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the newly agreed US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) require most trade between members to be tariff free.

Mexico could also have hit back with by levying tariffs that would have hurt swing-state voters, and in turn hurt Trump. This was the golden opportunity Mexico let slip from its hands. Mexico could have responded by hitting Trump where it hurts: Tariffs on American goods heading south. Mexico responded in a similar manner in June last year in response to the steel and aluminium tariffs. Mexico could have raised those tariffs each month in tandem with American levels.

This retaliation would have highlighted the gap between Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric and the underlying interdependence of the US and Mexico with stark consequences for the US presidential elections of 2020. Many of the biggest exporters to Mexico such as Arizona. Florida. California, Michigan and Illinois are swing states. New tariffs could have thrown Texas into recession and put its 38 electoral votes into play. It is all too late now, Mexico could have inadvertently helped Trump to get re-elected. Mexico has less than a month left to show some backbone and demand real American cooperation on the region’s shared challenges and rejecting Trump’s threats once and for all. The relationship between Mexico and the US could have been an example of cooperation under difficult conditions, but that would have required different American and Mexican presidents.

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Scandinavia Veers Left plus D-Day Reflections as Trump Storms Europe

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Mette Frederiksen of the five-party Social Democrat bloc won 91 of the 169 seats in the Danish parliament ending the rule of the right-wing Liberal Party group that had governed for 14 of the last 18 years.  The election issues centered on climate change, immigration and Denmark’s generous social welfare policies.  All parties favored tighter immigration rules thereby taking away the central issue dominating the far-right Democrat Freedom Party which has seen its support halved since the last election in 2015.

Ms Frederiksen promised more spending to bolster the much loved social welfare model and increased taxes on businesses and the wealthy.  A left wave is sweeping Scandinavia as Denmark becomes the third country, after Sweden and Finland, to move left within a year.  Mette Frederiksen will also be, at 41, the youngest prime minister Denmark has ever had.

Donald Trump has used the 75th anniversary of D-Day commemorations to garner positive publicity.  The supreme promoter has managed to tie it in with a “classy” (his oft-chosen word) state visit to the UK spending a day with royals.  It was also a farewell to the prime minister as her resignation is effective from June 7.  Add a D-Day remembrance ceremony at Portsmouth and he was off to his golf course in Ireland for a couple of days of relaxation disguised as a visit to the country for talks — he has little in common with the prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who is half-Indian and gay.

Onward to France where leaders gathered for ceremonies at several places.  It is easy to forget the extent of that carnage:  over 20,000 French civilians were killed in Normandy alone mostly from aerial bombing and artillery fire.  The Normandy American cemetery holds over 9600 soldiers.  All in all, France lost in the neighborhood of 390,000 civilian dead during the whole war.  Estimates of total deaths across the world range from 70 to 85 million or about 3 percent of the then global population (estimated at 2.3 billion).

Much has been written about conflict resolutions generally from a cold rational perspective.  Emotions like greed, fear and a sense of injustice when unresolved lead only in one direction.  There was a time when individual disputes were given the ultimate resolution through single combat.  Now legal rights and courts are available — not always perfect, not always fair, but neither are humans.

It does not take a genius to extrapolate such legal measures to nations and international courts … which already exist.  Just one problem:  the mighty simply ignore them.  So we wait, and we honor the dead of wars that in retrospect appear idiotic and insane.  Worse is the attempt to justify such insanity through times like the “good war”, a monstrous absurdity.

It usually takes a while.  Then we get leaders who have never seen the horror of war — some have assiduously avoided it — and the cycle starts again.

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To Impeach Or Not To Impeach? That Is The Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Robert Mueller let loose a thunderbolt midweek.  Donald Trump had not been charged, he said, because it was Department of Justice policy not to charge a sitting president.  Dumping the issue firmly into Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lap, he reminded us of the purpose of the impeachment process.  According to Mueller there are ten instances where there are serious issues with the president obstructing justice adding that his report never concludes that Trump is innocent.

So here is a simple question:  If Mueller thought the president is not innocent but he did not charge him because of Justice Department policy, and he appears also to favor impeachment, then why in heaven’s name did he not simply state in his report that the preponderance of evidence indicated Trump was guilty?

Nancy Pelosi is wary of impeachment.  According to the rules, the House initiates it and when/if  it finds sufficient grounds, it forwards the case to the Senate for a formal trial.  The Senate at present is controlled by Republicans, who have been saying it’s time to move on, often adding that after two years of investigation and a 448-page report, what is the point of re-litigating the issue?  They have a point and again it leads to the question:  if Special Counsel Mueller thinks Trump is guilty as he now implies, why did he not actually say so?

Never one to miss any opportunity , Trump labels Mueller, highly conflicted, and blasts impeachment as ‘a dirty, filthy, disgusting word’,  He has also stopped Don McGahn, a special counsel at the White House from testifying before Congress invoking ‘executive privilege’ — a doctrine designed to keep private the president’s consultations with his advisors.  While not cited anywhere in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has held it to be ‘fundamental to the operation of government and inextricably rooted in the Separation of Powers under the Constitution.’  Separation of powers keeps apart the executive branch, the legislature and the judiciary, meaning each one cannot interfere with the other.

Nancy Pelosi is under increasing pressure from the young firebrands.  Rep Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has already expressed the view that it is time to open an impeachment inquiry against Trump given the obstruction of lawmakers’ oversight duty.

Speaker Pelosi is a long-time politician with political blood running through her veins — her father was Mayor of Baltimore and like herself also a US Representative.  To her the situation as is, is quite appealing.  Trump’s behavior fires up Democrats across the country and they respond by emptying their pockets to defeat the Republicans in 2020.  Democratic coffers benefit so why harm this golden goose — a bogeyman they have an excellent chance of defeating — also evident from the numbers lining up to contest the Democratic presidential primaries, currently at 24. 

Will Trump be impeached?  Time will tell but at present it sure doesn’t look likely.

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