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Coronavirus and a time to change stereotypes

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The COVID-19 pandemic is by far and without any doubt top news today, pushing all other events to the background. Small wonder too, since the outbreak of the coronavirus infection affects us all and is comparable only to a destructive war or a global natural disaster. In a situation like this only the most doubting of Toms still ignore the hard fact that the only way humanity can possibly cope with this scourge, which knows no borders, ideologies, races and ethnicities, is to act as a single team, setting aside all conflicts, contradictions, local wars, and the policy of global dominion and sanctions.

Analysts everywhere are wracking their brains trying to present a picture of the future world order and the changed balance of power in the post-coronavirus period, when the time will come to “gather stones” and heal the wounds inflicted by the pandemic on the global economy, social and political stability in the world. There are many forecasts being made about future models of global development, changes in value guidelines and possible changes in public consciousness. For example, [Russian economist] Mikhail Khazin insists that the Bretton Woods system is now on its way out, and predicts the early end of US dollar. Others forecast a global economic recession, galloping inflation and a sharp increase in unemployment and bankruptcies. Some analysts provide a more detailed scenario of events in Europe, Asia and even Africa.

This applies also to Latin America and the Caribbean region, albeit to a lesser extent. However, even though the situation there differs strikingly from what is happening in the United States, which now wants to bring back the Monroe Doctrine to maintain its sway over the region and squeeze out extra-regional players by resorting to the tried-and-true cowboy tactic of blackmail, threats and direct regime-change operations, it is getting increasingly alarming nonetheless. 

Even though right-wing political forces  in Latin America have been staging a comeback, and the governments in South America are mostly toeing Washington’s line, the chaos that has swept the United States amid the spreading coronavirus epidemic (13,550 infected and more than 20,000 dead as of April 13, with shocking photos of dead bodies being buried in trenches on New York’s Hart island spreading across the globe, a national state of emergency now in effect, hundreds of infected sailors on board aircraft carriers, etc.) eloquently testifies to America’s real, not Hollywood-projected, ability to organize amid the COVID-19 outbreak. All this has a very sobering effect on the admirers of US neoliberalism in Latin America.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, as of April 12, the number of coronavirus infections in Central America was about 4,500, with over 48,000 cases registered in South America and almost 6,000 in the Caribbean. Many experts blame the authorities for failing to take timely disease prevention measures, and say that most of the victims in New York were Latin American citizens who had no medical insurance. Observers note that the virus affects big and small countries alike, laying bare serious gaps in their health care systems. According to the newspaper El Pais, in Mexico, where there are 4,661 recorded cases of COVID-19 infection there is an acute shortage of medical equipment. President Lopez Obrador has arranged for private clinics to make over 3,000 hospital beds available for those infected.

In Argentina, President Alberto Fernandez has extended the mandatory quarantine until April 26, arguing that he would rather see the national poverty rate exceeding 10 percent than have the number of death going up. He compared the situation in Argentina to that in neighboring Chile and Brazil, and concluded that Argentina is still coping with the coronavirus epidemic and where, according to the newspaper Clarin, the number of infections registered as of April 10 had reached 2,208, with 95 mortalities.   President Frenandez strongly condemned Washington’s pressure on Cuba and Venezuela, saying that in a situation of a pandemic, the US blockade of the island and the deployment of US forces along the border with Venezuela was a violation of international law. The São Paulo Forum, an umbrella movement of leftist parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, fully echoed this opinion.

Brazil deserves a special mention in this context. Ever since his election, President Jair Bolsonaro has aligned himself, politically, socially and even rhetorically, with his US counterpart Donald Trump, and this affinity was fully reflected in his initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the early stages of the epidemic, Jair Bolsonaro made light of the whole situation refusing to acknowledge the severity of the crisis and maintaining full air communication with the outside world. Even today, Brazilian airports do not check the temperature of arriving passengers. At the same time, the president is urging citizens to return to their workplaces, arguing that a “small cold” should not interfere with the citizens’ everyday lives. This approach has proved all wrong, as by April 13, more than 22,000 people had already contracted the virus, while mass-scale tests are only scheduled to begin later this week.

Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro and his government are losing public support, and this is a serious threat. According to recent polls, a vast majority of Brazilians (about 72%) are aware of the dangers of a new coronavirus and will not be fooled by the president’s frivolous approach to the problem. As a result, even among Bolsonaro’s voting base (currently about 30%), critical voices are becoming increasingly loud.

Thoughtless adherence to the “American way of life” by Brazil’s ruling elite, especially in light of the ongoing fight against coronavirus, may blemish the president’s reputation among the people, and raise questions about the United States as an example to follow.

The situation in Ecuador is equally lackluster with the number of people infected among medical staff reportedly increasing, and the authorities unable to cope with the death toll. More than 7,400 cases of infection have been confirmed, and 333 people have already died. Moreover, President Lenin Moreno said that the number of coronavirus infections is actually greater than what is maintained by official statistics. This is due to the authorities’ inability to conduct more tests.

Meanwhile, Lenin Moreno and his cabinet members have taken 50 percent pay cuts as part of economic measures to combat the epidemic.

The list of such examples goes on and on. One thing is important though – the countries of the continent cannot cope alone. They need organized help, but requests to this effect addressed to the United States have not yielded any positive response yet. It is certainly worth mentioning here that following Russia’s gratuitous assistance to Italy, the Latin American and Caribbean countries started turning to Moscow. Fourteen South American nations have already asked Russia to send them medical equipment, including ventilators and protective outfits, test kits for diagnosing COVID-19, and medical face masks. There have also been appeals for assistance in the construction and equipment of specialized hospitals, and so on and so forth. The applicants are Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Grenada, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia.

Russia maintains friendly and mutually-rewarding relations with 33 countries in Latin America, regardless of the changing political situation there. This is why these countries’ leaders turned to Moscow for help, perfectly aware of the big-hearted nature of their Russian partners who are always ready to help out in times of trouble.

When this pandemic is finally over, people will see who really is a friend in deed who knows how to lend a hand in difficult times, and, despite some sticky points in bilateral relations, always provides genuine, not imaginary, assistance.

So, it looks like the time for changing old stereotypes won’t take long coming, and this is something that people who love making forecasts need to understand.

From our partner International Affairs

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Americas

Transition 2021: How Biden is likely to approach the Middle East

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In terms of foreign policy, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden,is likely to face numerous challenges, especially when it comes to the Middle East because of the disastrous policies of the former President, Donald Trump, in the region. Even in his inauguration speech, Biden made it clear that it was going to be testing time. Some of the challenges that the new administration would be facing includethe nuclear deal with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, issues of human rights issues and the current deadlock between Israel and Palestine. There is some possibility that Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East would either be a revival of Barack Obama’s former policies or new strategies would be formulated based on the nature of the challenges faced. However, it is certain that Biden will address or undo Trump’s terrible policies in the region. 

The Biden administration’s top foreign policy agenda is the policy towards Iran. The Iran nuclear deal (2015) or JCOPA was considered to be a milestone in multilateral diplomacy that was irresponsibly abandoned by Trump in 2018. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions against Iran aimed to please the traditional allies as they faced a common enemy in Iran. Biden has promised to return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement, and he would also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and exchange for sanctions relief. In this process, it is expected that Washington might pressure Iran to withdraw its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the US would also seek to curb Iran’s export of precision guided missiles to her regional allies. Iran though, has already made it clear that these issues would not be discussed in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. Furthermore, this plan may be complicated by the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was not condemned by the White House that Iran blames on Israel. Public outrage had not even subdued at the point due to the assassination of Qasim Sulemani. Currently, the architecture of the Middle Eastern region is even more complex and challenging than it was four years ago butthe fact is that Iran cannot afford military conflict at this point when its economy is already crippling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic along with the sanctions imposed by the US.

Trump administration’s “Israel-first” approach in the region brought severe criticism at the global level. The Abraham Accord, signed in September of last year,which normalized Israel’s relations with UAE & Bahrain, is widely seen as Donald Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement. This Accord altered the decades long regional perception that Arab-Israel peace could not be achieved without first addressing the issue of statehood for Palestinians. Biden has said that he supports more countries recognizing Israel but at the same time Israel needs to work towards genuine solutions between the two states. Moreover, the new administration at the White House will not show the same tolerance for Israel’s settler expansionism as its predecessor. However, there are certain foreign policies by the Trump administration that the new US leadership does not want to renew. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations is something that enjoys bipartisan support. And also, the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem seems unlikely to be undone.

The US policy inthe Middle East under the new leadership will be less ideological and would be more based on fundamental principles.  These principles will greatly focus on human rights as some analysts view human rights as the core foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration. Thus, it does not seem not to be good news for the traditional allies of the US including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel. There are a variety of issues in addition to the human rights issues: the KSA intervention in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the lingering mistrust, the jailing of activists and Jamall Khashoggi’s murder case, which are creating uncertainties between the Washington and Riyadh. Hence, KSA is going to have a very difficult time with the Biden administration. Similarly, the new administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view towards Moscow and Ankara because of the extraterritorial activities in the Middle Eastern region.

Certainly, returning to the Iran nuclear dealofficially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-will take a longer time to review because of the complexity of the issue and the domestic problems that the US is currently facing. There is also a possibility of a dangerous escalation without a nuclear deal due to Iran’s aims of buildingmilitary scenarios. Therefore, multilateral diplomacy is the best option for regional peace and security, which has been tried in the previous years.Even the JCPOA was a result of such diplomacy. The US ending its support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen might turn away the traditional allies for some time but not permanently due to the common interests in the region. Biden is also likely to alter Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region as it would decrease US influence in the region. The top priority of the US administration in the Middle East would be to try and manage Iran’s problems and to maintain reasonable relations with Israel. Traditional allies of the US in the Middle East were content and supportive of Trump’s policies in the region but they view Biden, not as a President, but Vice President of the Obama Administration. Trump’s bilateral relations were often based on personal ties with the foreign leaders while Biden is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach in engaging with the allies. Still, scholars believe that there would be no fundamental change in the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, especially when it comes to protecting its vested interests in the region.

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Rejoining the UNHRC will be the State Department’s first diplomatic mistake

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As over the last days US Vice President Harris swore in Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the new US Ambassador to the UN, US Secretary of State Blinken announced in parallel that the US is now seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council, in an attempt to rejoin the UN system. But that’s not the right first move back at the UN that the US should be making. And that’s not what the progressive left had in mind when the real left groups put in office the new Biden Administration.

My perspective comes from having worked in the UN human rights system and as a finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech last year – but also as a progressive left voice.

The days when UN engagement defined Democrats vis-a-vis Republicans are over.

Shunning the UN has always been a Republican hallmark but backing and pouring so much funding into an old style, corrupt bureaucracy that has little to do with “diplomacy” is not what the new, awaken progressive left wants either.

Several weeks ago, I made the estimate that the 10bln dollars which the US government pours into the black hole called the UN equals the Covid relief that 16mln struggling American people could be getting now. The Biden Administration’s State Department diplomats have to remember who put them in office.

Democrat centrist diplomats have more in common with the UN in terms of ways, goals, style and world view than they do with the progressive left. Backing the UN means backing the old, corrupt ways, which the real progressive left voted to break last year.

The decision to announce the US’s goal to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council comes in the same week when President Biden finally announced his real stance on the Black Lives Matter ‘defund the police’ goals. Biden, it turns out, unsurprisingly does not support that. That’s not what the progressive left signed up for, either.

The UN institutional funding inertia by the US government does not define the Democratic Party anymore. That’s not what the left voters want. 

The left’s reasons for not embracing the UN and the UN Human Rights Council have little to do with the usual Republican ‘go it alone’ at the international stage.

Yes to diplomacy and multilateralism. No to the corrupt, faceless UN. “International diplomacy” is no longer the same thing as the UN system.

The wave that rose across American political life last year, with so many young black activists and so many people voting for the first time, signaled a big resounding No to old ways and old institutions, which have little concern for the actual needs of the people.

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Thomas-Greenfield, will have the tough job of reforming the UN, and in my opinion, even defunding the UN.

The days when love for the UN defined Democrats are certainly over. It’s time for the Biden Administration to do what it was elected for, which is to not simply go back to the same old, same old corrupt, faceless bureaucratic institutions swimming in money. This is not what we want. The progressive left voted for change and now that also includes the UN.

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U.S. Climate Policy Could Break the Ice with Russia

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Photo: Fiona Paton/ flickr

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity” — Albert Einstein

Within the climate crisis lies strategic opportunity for the United States. Climate change offers the chance to earn back the good will of allies, to prepare American cities for an urgently needed increase in immigration, and to reinvent U.S.-led institutions that have gone stale. Perhaps most of all, foreign policymakers should remain cognizant of how climate action can help the U.S. navigate relations with the other great powers.

As a recent report from the Center for a New American Security details, synergy between China and Russia is more problematic for U.S. interests than the sum of the challenges that each nation poses individually. Similarly, a recent Atlantic Council publication observed that “allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error.” Chinese and Russian interests do currently align on defense, economics, and the degradation of the U.S.-designed world order, but the nature of their alignment does not constitute an alliance.

In characterizing the relationship, this distinction is paramount. For as long as China and Russia remain merely convenient partners, rather than ideologically kindred allies, it is possible to keep these neighbors at arm’s length. To this end, the U.S. must reorient its approach to Russia. It is the Russian perception that world politics are rigged to benefit the U.S. at Russia’s expense that has prompted its support for China.

Russia’s national interests are rooted in the desire for respect. With this in mind, Russia could pull back from synergy with China if a better opportunity to advance these interests presented itself. Ultimately, the ability of the U.S. to offer a mutually acceptable alternative will hinge on two related factors: the Arctic and NATO. Critically, the issue of climate change is central to both of these factors.

In the Arctic, rapid warming removes barriers to resource exploitation, shipping activity, and great power competition. This has drawn many non-Arctic states to the region. Yet, even with China inserting itself as a “Near-Arctic State,” Russia has expressed the need for a hierarchy of regional influence in which the interests of Arctic states are prioritized over non-Arctic states. On this, American and Russian interests align.

Russian distrust of the U.S. complicates matters, however. Arctic military assertiveness from Russia is evidence of its sensitivity to the NATO alliance. In response, U.S. military branches have been releasing strategies for Arctic-specific forward defense. Such militarism is not conducive to improving relations, securing sovereign influence, or addressing climate change. 

In order to limit undue Chinese influence in the region and stabilize its relations with Russia by securing a multilateral agreement that formalizes an Arctic hierarchy, the U.S. will need to alter its foreign policy so that Russia perceives it to be a viable partner. The alteration should be sufficient for reducing friction with Russia’s core interests, but not so extreme that liberal values or American security are put in jeopardy. Such transactional considerations should include fashioning a new climate-positive role for the U.S. in NATO. After all, the permanent physical presence of roughly 76,000 U.S. troops on the European continent not only irks Russia, but this posture is also expensive, carbon-intensive, and perhaps not even the most effective approach to conflict deterrence. 

Indeed, research has shown that rapid deployment of new forces is significantly more likely to stymie aggression. This suggests that the U.S. should reduce its troop levels in Europe by at least 75 percent while bolstering rapid deployment readiness. This would allow the U.S. to simultaneously reduce its military’s fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions, earn the good will necessary for stronger diplomacy with Russia, and still honor its security commitment to NATO in the event of a crisis. Moreover, the U.S. could then reinvest the potential savings into both Arctic sustainability and NATO’s capacity to manage climate insecurity.

Through the establishment of a bounded Arctic order and the greening of American leadership in NATO, the U.S. can dispel Sino-Russian synergy in the region and help maintain balance between the great powers. Specifically, these actions would both politically distance China from Russia and give the Kremlin substantial reason to begin feeling more optimistic about its relations with the West. To be sure, similar measures will be necessary in other regions to fully assure balance. However, the Arctic is a natural place for the U.S. to begin this endeavor. Usefully, the themes of climate mitigation and adaptation provide a blueprint for what countering Sino-Russian synergy elsewhere ought to generally entail.

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