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Poetry and Rancor: Donald Trump, America and the “Hollow Men”

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“We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men”-T S Eliot, The Hollow Men  (1925)

Donald Trump did not emerge ex nihilo, from nothing. He was the predictable outgrowth of a society that generally loathes any serious thought. When Mr. Trump noted proudly during his 2016 campaign that “I love the poorly educated,” it was by no means an off-the-cuff or seat-of-the pants observation.

It was offered as a politically convenient affirmation of alleged kinship, a deliberate strategy nurturing his bond with a specific portion of the American electorate.

This targeted portion could have been called “hollow men” by poet T S Eliot. Currently, to be sure, this meaning must be taken to include both genders. In this regard, the president’s revealed sentiments were entirely “evenhanded.”

However regrettable and worrisome for other reasons, they were not intended as sexist.

What were these “other reasons?” To answer, we must first inquire: Where does Donald Trump’s conspicuous loathing of intellect and learning have its contemporary historical roots?  Significantly, this is not really a difficult question.

“Intellect rots the mind,” warned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg rallies in 1935. This plausible historical resemblance or commonality need not suggest that the Trump administration is in any way genocidal, only that both regimes drew their “primal” nurturance from the poisonous font of a know-nothing populism.

Even in anti-intellectual America, the poet occupies a proper place. Sometimes,  he or she is all-seeing, even as a prophetic antecedent of what still lies ahead.  “This is the dead land…” laments T.S. Eliot, speaking of no one geographic place in particular.  Rather, he observes, in a presumptively generic “cactus land,” false images of wood and stone are raised by “hollow men” as suitable objects for veneration.

Just as in present-day Trump-era United States, compliant inhabitants will insistently welcome “the supplication of a dead man’s hand.”

By definition, of course, it is a profoundly self-destructive welcoming.

Today, still more precisely, such lethal surrenders are witnessed most often at Trump “rallies,” literally incoherent gatherings of the president’s faithful, replete with screams and ritualistic phrases chanted in loud and atavistic chorus.

For the United States, at least in principle, there still exist more promising supplications. But any such foreseeable entreaties would first require a society that can take itself seriously, not one that has wittingly exchanged banal observations and empty chatter for intellect and learning. Under no circumstances – absolutely none – could these sensible pleas be spawned by a society of “hollow men” or “hollow women.”

Never.

Now, actually meeting the requirements of a tangibly thoughtful and reasoning society is little more than a vague hope.Nonetheless, a simple though dignified model for improvement does remain available. To wit, before the poet Eliot’s revealing metaphors, Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon his fellow Americans to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” Today, especially, it is evident that his sensible nineteenth-century plaint for enhanced equilibrium  (personal and social) went unheeded.

Widely unheeded.

No truth-based observation could ever be more obvious.

Now, in the glaringly rancorous “Trump Era,” there is no longer any plausible pretense concerning  mind or integrity. Today, both intellect and dignity are out of political fashion, strikingly out of fashion. At least in the most cantankerous public realms, truth is no longer regarded as meaningfully worthwhile or advantageous. For this president, who seemingly learned a great deal from de facto mentor Joseph Goebbels, it is plainly a liability.

A grievous liability.

Though not generally understood, looking behind the news is everyone’s first obligation of citizenship. Only here, in what is not immediately obvious, may we yet discover certain immutably core truths of American life. After all, even the tiniest hint of science or “high thinking” is treated by US President Donald Trump as an affront, as an epithet, as an unseemly sign of independent thinking.

Could anything else be more fittingly subject to mass-based spasms of public loathing, of duly “patriotic” American hatreds?

This corrosive subordination of intellect was by no means an original “contribution” of  Donald Trump  (American society has never been an example of obeisance to learning or enlightened considerations of “mind”),  but it remains a defiling signature of this rapidly dissembling American presidency.

 For sensible and still-thinking Americans, there should be little residual ambiguity about what is unraveling. Beyond any reasonable doubt, this country now backs further and further away from any merit-based  standards of policy assessment. Locked fixedly into a regressive trajectory of political and cultural decline, America’s cumulative ambitions are continuously being reduced to narrowly shallow credos and correspondingly empty witticisms.

“I love the poorly educated” said candidate Trump back in 2016.

Pertinent policy examples abound. It hardly comes as a surprise that virtually all Americans are already victims of this president’s  vaunted “trade wars.” Ironically, the principal long-term beneficiaries of  this Trump-induced incoherence will be Russia and China. The only derivative question should be this: Why is such plainly injurious presidential irrationality still acceptable to millions of rhythmically chanting citizens?

What can they possibly be thinking?

Always, science must begin with tangible questions.  These core questions cannot be overlooked or ignored.  Americans, it follows, must much more sincerely inquire: “How can a US president so willfully ignore and accept his Russian counterpart as his puppet master?” Even in the wholesale absence of “high thinking” within the Trump White House, it should be unambiguous that one superpower president has become the all-too-witting marionette of the other.

At what point do Americans candidly acknowledge that in any measured comparisons with geopolitical reality, the current US presidency is effectively The Manchurian Candidate on steroids?

There are still more serious questions. As a nation, when shall we finally agree to bear truthful witness on Constitutional governance?[1] Can there be any doubt that there is much more to these founding principles than the Second Amendment?  Surely this country must ultimately be about much more than just the right to bear arms.

Is it not already obvious, patently, that what we now witness from moment to moment represents a more perilous American declension than even the most sensationalized fictional catastrophes?

Cultural context remains vital, even determinative. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency did not arise ex nihilo, in a vacuum. What exactly has gone wrong with American  “high thinking?” How, more precisely, have we managed to allow a once-still-promising and steadily-rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward collective national misfortune?  

In the inherently unsteady nuclear age, such misfortune could sometime include irreversibly catastrophic human wars.  With such dreaded inclusion, we the people might even need to witness a wholly unprecedented fusion. This would be an explosive alloy of banality and apocalypse.

It’s not a pleasing fusion.

Before answering such queries – and properly serious replies must take special account of expanding nuclear proliferation – the genre we select must be exquisitely precise.  In this connection, whenever we speak of Donald Trump we dare not speak of authentic “tragedy.” “True” tragedy, unlike common buffoonery or self-induced misfortune, is ennobling.  Always.

From Aristotle to Shakespeare, true tragedy has demanded a victim, whether individual or societal, one who suffers undeservedly.

This demand has not been met today.

In this dreary and profane play directed by President Donald Trump, we Americans are not properly tragic figures. Surely we are not just the passive victims of a disjointed and contrived presidency effectively forced upon us in 2016. As long as we refuse to speak out at less  delicate levels of truth-telling – and this refusal means much more than just showing up to vote in 2020 – we will  deserve our consequent losses.

Richly deserve them.

In the nuclear age, it now bears repeating, such losses could be irremediable.

Even immediately, they would likely be unendurable.

At that late point we would surely not represent the tragic victims of some unstoppable national decline. Instead, we would appear the pathetic “spillover” of a palpable and once-preventable melodrama.

At that point our defining genre will have become parody and pathos.

In all likelihood, that finally expressed American genre would represent a dreadful and prospectively hideous farce.

Amid all these consequential “theatrical” matters, we may have less to learn from Aristotle or Shakespeare  than from the 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at the two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of the ever-present dangers posed by “horde” or “mass.” Both Freud and Jung were strongly influenced by the Danish Existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard (who personally preferred the term “crowd” to “horde” or “mass”) and by German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

 Without guile, Nietzsche spoke woefully of the “herd.”

Whatever term we might decide to favor, one key point remains unassailable: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of critical thinking and “reason” (this observation about “reason” should bring us also to the German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers[2]), we can expect incremental deformity and eventual tyranny.  Nietzsche, in his masterpiece Zarathustra, was more specific. “Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the prophet had warned presciently.

Translated into more prosaic terms of our current American presidential dilemma, this ought to remind us that mundane skill sets acquired in the worlds of real-estate bargaining and casino gambling do not “carry over” to high-politics and diplomacy.

Or as one might say here in Indiana, “Not hardly!”

Now, in essence, American national leadership desperately requires some serious figures of historical literacy and tangible erudition, not the crudely half-educated marketers of  “deals.”

In America, snake oil can still be sold under various different markings.

But it’s still just snake oil.

In the end, every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort or other of “redemption.” This search is never properly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but important answers may still occasionally lie outside mainstream scientific investigations.[3]

These sorts of “eccentric” answers ought not necessarily be disregarded.

At times, at least, they should be consciously sought and carefully studied.

Not only the blustering American “emperor,” but also those still awed  by his mind-stifling “parade,” are shamelessly “naked.” In President Donald Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, we the people cheerlessly inhabit a stultifying “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and immutably shallow pleasures. Bored by the suffocating banalities of daily life and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of wealth and poverty, our weary US citizens – people who have every right to vote,  but not to keep their teeth[4] – now grasp anxiously for any available lifelines of distraction.

In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a false prophet of American “greatness.”

In 2016, legions of Americans unaccustomed to reading anything of consequence were easily taken in by a mountain of cheap red hats and starkly inane slogans.

For Donald Trump, cynical simplifications represented his planned path to electoral victory.

“Intellect rots the mind” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935.

“I love the poorly educated” said US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

Such things considered, it is small wonder that the cavernous Opiate Crisis is already deep enough to drown entire libraries of a once-sacred poetry.

Small wonder, too, that in a nation of so much institutionalized pain and private desperation there exists a pervasively growing cry for “anesthesia.”

In part, because of the indifferent and ineffectual stewardship of America’s current president, both this singular nation and the wider planetary system of which it is a part are at significant risk. Where, then, shall we meaningfully seek any still-lingering public demands for human improvement and collective survival? Where might we still discover any usefully reinforcing visions of social cooperation and personal growth?  

In principle, at least, thoughtful concepts are de rigeur. Misdirected by the incessantly hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” we have somehow managed to forget that world politics is a system.  It follows, among other things, that US prosperity is perpetually linked to the calculable well-being of other states and other societies.

It’s not terribly complicated. In brief, this is an historical moment where one simplifying gastronomic metaphor can actually make sense:  In essence, we are all in the “soup” together.

There is more. Until now, we have unceremoniously ignored the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s clear warning from The Phenomenon of Man: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

We have also ignored almost everything else of commendably real intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this indictment, one need only look at the current state of American higher education –  in many ways, now just another obvious expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) “marketplace.”

In Donald Trump’s America, we the people are no longer shaped by any suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, or, as has already been amply demonstrated, by even the tiniest hints of plausibly complex thought. Now, our preferred preoccupation, shamelessly unhidden, lies with a closely- orchestrated hysteria of indulgence in other people’s private lives and (with even greater and more visceral enthusiasm) their corollary sufferings. In German, there is a specially-designated word for this lethal pathology of the human spirit.

The Germans call this schadenfreude, or taking exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

For the most part,  this voyeuristic frenzy is juxtaposed against the always-comforting myth of American superiority. In the end, this particular myth, more than any other, is apt to produce further declension and despair. This is the case even when an American president chooses to physically wrap himself around the flag, a recent Trump embrace of rare and visually defiling repugnance.

I belong, therefore I am.”  This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, back in the 17th century, he had urged greater thought and expanding doubt. It is also a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it loudly shrieks that social acceptance is equivalent to physical survival, and that even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are inevitably worth pursuing.

There is much more. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smart phones and corresponding social networks stems in large part from our barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this increasingly robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be shunted away from any caring human emotions, and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.

Jurisprudentially, although international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity – and despite the fact that this binding international law is an established part of the municipal law of the United States[5] – America’s president remains irremediably silent on war crimes committed by both America’s allies and its adversaries. These terms of relationship must be bound together because  it has become substantially unclear in Trump’s inverted universe exactly who is friend and who is foe. When Trump says of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” the rest of us are in real trouble.

We may still argue, and quite correctly, that human beings are the creators of their machines, not their servants. Yet, there exists today an implicit and hideous reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially murderous pantomime between the users and the used. Openly, our adrenalized American society is rapidly making a machine out of Man and Woman.

 In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now seems plausible that we have been created in the image not of God, but of the machine.

Mustn’t we now ask, at least those residually few Americans who would courageously remain determined thinkers and doubters, “What sort of redemption is this?”

For the moment, we Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and stultifying mass. By relentlessly disclaiming any dint of interior life, we are able to proceed with our lives, very tentatively, of course, and – in absolutely every existential sphere – at the lowest possible common denominator.

Expressed in more palpable terms, our air, rail and land travel is too often insufferable, especially when compared to other western democracies. Our universities, institutions in which I have lived exclusively for more than the past half century, are generally bereft of anything that might ever hint at serious learning. For the most part, they have obligingly become submissive adjuncts to the larger corporate and entrepreneurial worlds.

Now, they are dedicated more than anything else to private wealth accumulation and institutional self-promotion. In America, let us be candid: “You are what you buy.” Or in a grotesque inversion of Descartes, “I don’t think, therefore I am.”

In the blatantly anti-intellectual Trump Era, this already intolerable trend merely continues to worsen.

There is still more pertinent detail to consider. Across the beleaguered land, our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has largely been replaced by unhidden and more “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports, and “branding”(quantitative rankings.) Apart from their unhappy drunkenness and broadly tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of “higher education” have managed to become something wholly unrelated to learning. Most visibly, though rarely acknowledged, our universities have morphed into a vocational pipeline to nonsensical and unsatisfying jobs.

Sometimes, as in the case of onetime “Trump University,” they are incapable of meeting even these embarrassingly minimal expectations.

Again, it is time for candor.  For most of America’s young people, learning has become an inconvenient and burdensome commodity, nothing more. At the same time, as virtually everyone already understands, commodities exist for only one overriding purpose. They exist, like the newly minted college graduates themselves, to be bought and sold.

Beware, warns Zarathustra, of ever seeking virtue or quality at the marketplace. This is a place only for buying and selling, a venue for “deals.”

 Though faced with genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment and terror, millions of Americans still choose to amuse themselves to death with assorted forms of morbid excitement, public scandal (remember Schadenfreude), inedible foods, and the stunningly inane repetitions of an illiterate political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, our bewildered and  drug-numbed country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people a devaluation of challenging thought and a breakneck pace of unrelieved and unrewarding work.

Small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs now hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, childcare centers and ready-to-burst prisons.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president (a president who actually read and wrote serious books) answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to join the misleading “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, President Wilson already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more disabling than even the sordid decompositions of an individual person.

 In all societies, Emerson had already understood, the care of individual “souls” is our most urgent responsibility. Conceivably, there could emerge  a betterAmerican Soul,”but not until we first agree to shun the variously inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture  –  that is, (1) rank imitation; (2) shallow thinking;  (3) organized mediocrity; and (4) a manifestly predatory politics of  ethnicity, race and class. Of course, any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time.

 And time is something we no longer have.

The alternative would be for us to embrace an intolerably “hollow” future, one offering not a national life of any excellence or promise, but a “cactus land” –  a decaying country ever more willing “to receive the supplication of a dead man’s hand.” This would represent an unalterably lethal embrace, one earlier described (in generic terms, of course) by 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “a sickness unto death.”  In this cactus land, hope would inevitably give way to abject surrender and expanding despair.

Eventually, resembling the probable survivors of a future nuclear war (perhaps even  literally), the living could envy the dead.


[1] https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2017/07/Beres-president-trump-impeachment1/

[2] See especially Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952).

[3] Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery. Per the following brief discussion of America’s rampant Opiate Crisis, he was most assuredly prophetic.

[4] One has to wonder just how many Americans can even afford to have essential dental care. As a practical matter, for a great many Americans (both poor and aged) teeth are simply no longer affordable.

[5] In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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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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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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