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Latin America is inching slowly towards a change for the better

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Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Shimone Jaini*

Every utopia sooner or later turns into a dystopia. Why, then, do Latin Americans fancy themselves constructing alternative utopias? What good is utopia? Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano seems to have the answer, “it is good for walk.”  Latin America hasn’t stopped imagining and dreaming. It may not have captured the imagination of global policy-makers and the chattering classes. But the region has indeed changed, mostly for the better. However, it would be premature to proclaim that Latin America has turned the corner.

Why has Latin America acquired the reputation for its pursuit of endless revolutions or what Marina Sitrin calls ‘Everyday Revolutions’? Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo provides some insights about such revolutions in his novel, Red April, “there is a feeling in Latin America that good ones were not so good and the bad ones were not so bad.”

Latin America has long been a laboratory of political and social experiments. Sebastian Edwards, author of Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism, says that the political and economic history of Latin America has been “marked by great hopes and even greater disappointments”. And yet, some of the political and social experiments continue to catapult the region into the global consciousness and resonate with people across the globe.

Latin America suffers from many frailties. But it refuses to put an end to imaginations. It continues to dream how to construct a world where many worlds could live. Thanks to their endless dreams and imaginations, the region glimpses possibilities of other worlds. There is a lot to learn from Latin America both from its best practices and worst failures.

Deepening democracy and political participation

With the entrenchment of democracy, new paradigms of governance have emerged in Latin America. In recent decades the region has shown a trend to reject traditional political parties and vote for new formations to power. The dominance of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is long over.  But Political institutions are still quite weak. Rewriting constitutions comes easy to Latin Americans. Dominican Republic is having its 32nd constitution. Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador have had 32nd, 26th and 20th constitutions respectively. Now Chilean President has agreed to change the 1980 Pinochet constitution.

Does it show Latin America’s growing impatience with the non-performing models? Or are Latin Americans undermining democratic principles in the name of pursuing more radical agendas?

The institutional architecture for democracy has been very diverse in Latin America. For instance, in some countries, the party system has collapsed (e.g., Peru and Venezuela); in other countries, parties have become increasingly detached from civil society (e.g., Chile and Mexico), and, in others, social movements have replaced traditional parties (e.g., Bolivia).

The region has also shown deep contempt for modern democratic politics. It means a different kind of politics, not necessarily the denial or rejection of politics. Maybe what the region is hankering after is not just a politics which delivers but also which uses a new language of politics. It is, in a way, what Andreas Schedlar calls ‘end of politics.’

The same voters who were captivated by new, mostly leftist movements, promising to redistribute wealth, punishing traditional parties and turning political systems on their heads have now begun rejecting them. Across the continent traditional parties have disintegrated though the trend is more pronounced in the Andean region.

It all began with the emergence of a ‘vote of rage’ towards the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the present century. Several governments lost power and the voters made a demand like ‘que se vayantodos’ (they all should go). Elections in Mexico in 2000 ended 70 years of PRI’s domination. In 1999, elections in Venezuela brought an end to 40 years of bipartisan politics. Something similar happened in Uruguay in 2000 when the domination of the Colorados and the Blancos came to an end. Popular movements toppled several governments in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Ivan Hinojosa of Catholic University in Lima says that “some parties recuperate but many don’t, and in their place you have all new and unpredictable movements”.

 The institutions that promised better outcomes have delivered at best modest results. Much of the frustrations and anger that have given rise to mass protests and democratic discontent across the region are centred on the weaknesses of these institutions.1 Governments have changed, new parties and political formations have captured power and even the rhetoric has changed but meaningful institutional innovations are still a work in progress.

Constitutional changes and innovative schemes have empowered the various indigenous groups. Social policies and constitutional recognition of new citizenship rights have given these groups a new sense of belonging. However, the durability of these measures remains a moot question at a time when Latin America is witnessing end of the commodity boom and electoral setback to left-wing regimes.

New tools to boost political participation

In the areas of women’s empowerment and advancement of gender rights, the region has made notable advance. A study conducted by International IDEA in 18 Latin American countries demonstrates how important it is to have both men and women leaders to promote better participation from women, if the parties want to be democratic and inclusive institutions.

Efforts made by such parties in 11 “institutional spaces” include Statutes and Declarations of Principles, Internal Organization, Financing, Training, Recruiting, Media, etc. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) have been ratified by every Latin American country. Most  countries have approved laws promoting gender equality. Moreover, a small yet significant step of using gender-sensitive language to acknowledge women has proven monumental in reversing the predominantly male concepts in political language.

Despite the continued presence of a series of obstacles limiting the political participation of women in the region, such political parties have undertaken innovative and effective initiatives that can be considered “best practices”. 

Multiple global crises have led to an increased interest in Latin America in the social and solidarity economy (SSE).  In Latin America, the social and solidarity discourse, deployed with increasing intensity since the 1990s, refers to a model of political and economic development based on principles of solidarity, participation, cooperation and reciprocity. The same has also been articulated as ‘social knowledge economy’.

Hotbed of political innovation

A wave of political innovation is sweeping across Latin America as it is creating more participatory and inclusive democratic governments, breaking its shackles from the deep-rooted authoritarianism. It has also become an inspiration for many on how path to democracy is mapped out and advanced.

The Instituto Update, which studies political innovation in Latin America, found in its study that more than 600 initiatives have been put in place which are trying to reduce the gap between citizens and their governments by increasing political participation, improving transparency and accountability, encouraging innovation in government, and doing more to develop independent media.

The study identifies 5 main approaches in Latin America towards creating, developing and practicing new methods and instruments to foster political participation and trust in government. Firstly, citizens themselves are working for social change. The Secundarista movement that spread all over Brazil was led by students protesting for better education reforms in Saõ Paulo’s public high schools.

Another movement in México known as #Yo soy 132 was spearheaded by students who were protesting against political corruption during the 2012 presidential elections. This shows that people are creating new innovative ways to mobilize resources and to persuade elected officials and bureaucrats to pursue public policy changes.

Secondly, there are many feminist movements taking place all over Latin America like-#PrimaveraFeminista, #NiUnaMenos, #Pimp My Carroça, demanding reproductive rights and bringing attention to the issue of domestic abuse.  Activists and organisations are also using social media and humor like GregNews, a comedy news show to make citizens aware and interested in public interest issues.

Thirdly, elected officials are trying to make institutions more participatory and inclusive. Measures like DemocracyOS (Argentina) and LinQ (Ecuador) to Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights have made great progress in giving voice to the people in the policymaking process.

Moreover, to monitor and hold politicians and corporations accountable, civil society organizations are using technology and open data. Groups like Paraguay’s A Quienes Elegimos, Argentina’s Chequeado, and Chile’s Del Dicho al Hecho are using online tools and organising public protests to insist on transparency from the government.

And finally, there’s a recognition that politics across Latin America needs new voices and new people to get involved. Today, movements such as Mexico’s WikiPolítica and Brazil’s Bancada Ativista, as well as new political parties like Chile’s Revolución Democrática and Argentina’s Partido de la Red, are aiming to make politics accessible, cool, and honorable to a new generation of activists.

How protest movements are novel

Culture has long been a tool of propaganda. But culture in Latin America is also a tool of protests. Protesters dancing to the rhythms of cumbia and salsa music and citizens pot-banging from their balconies have grabbed global eyeballs. Brazilians have resorted to ‘panelacos’ (protesting with pots and pans) against President Bolsonaro for denying science on Coronavirus.

Chileans have resorted to social media with their different artistic modes of expression to warrant their movement against the government which decided to privatize public services and raise the price of public transportation. Victor Jara’s 1971 song “Derecho a la paz”(Right to peace) has become a resistance anthem for students and working-class protestors. The song, originally composed during Pinochet’s dictatorship, has now become an inspiration for the demonstrators to take to the streets despite the violent oppression by the police and military national forces.

New slogans, new symbols of power, new empowerment

For hundreds of years the indigenous people remained invisible in a culture dominated by the language and traditions of Europe. They also became victims ofwhat sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls ‘Racism without Racists’. Hence, recent gains by the indigenous are credible. Today, they have begun to dream. After all, dreams give vision and vision leads to action. Today, the various indigenous communities refuse to return to the dark valley; they have realized that forgetting could be a key part of learning.

Empowerment is an enabling exercise. It begins with the marginal, the forgotten. The indigenous groups in particular have worked to address the incompleteness of citizenship. In their efforts to rework politics, they have pointed out how for many, citizenship has remained an unfulfilled promise; citizenship is not mere entitlement.

For the indigenous, the body is the site for politics, very much the way it was for Gandhi. It is also a site for struggle. As Shiv Viswanathan argues, “the body prevents politics from straying into the abstractions of ideology or policy. It is a statement of presence, of sensing politics and suffering as part of a sensorium of sounds, smells, touch, taste and memory.” No less importantly, the rise of the indigenous has gone a long way to liberate politics from its behavioral and ideological pomposity.

By making way for leaders of their choice to gain power and overthrowing several presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador, the newly empowered indigenous groups want to ensure that no despot ascends the throne but a doer, one who heals their wounds, not turn the knife in them. In several countries and more specifically in Bolivia and Ecuador, the traditionally occupied indigenous territories have been recognized and protected and the sustainable development of natural resources located in their land has been guaranteed. Some of the issues like land as an economic base, a space of social reproduction and a condition for survival, recognition of their collective rights, have gained recognition in international forums.

Indigenous and peasant groups have not stopped at mere protests. They have adopted another strategy: protesta con propuesta, whereby positive alternatives have been suggested. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), for example, has formulated its own water reform proposal. Without denying their economic importance, the proposals emphasize the community-based, social, and ecological aspects of water. Also in Peru and Bolivia, platforms of popular alliances and peasant and indigenous organizations have formulated constructive counter-proposals that complement their claims and protests.

The following section analyses some of the institutional innovations and best practices in Latin America that have found acceptance and admiration outside the region.

Mexico’s Oportunidades and Brazil’s Zero Hunger

Progresa, Mexico’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program,(later known as Oportunidades and now as Prospera), is known for increasing school enrolments and attendance in its initial 18-month randomized evaluation (Parker and Todd 2017). In this program, money is directly given to families if they send children to school, meet nutrition standards and receive regular health check-ups. This has had significant long-term benefits that could reduce intergenerational poverty according to a study published in National Bureau of Economic Research.

A similar CCT program was adopted by Colombia in 2000 known as Familasenaccion which provides money to poor households with children under 18 years old. It targets population that comprises of poor families that have either been displaced by the conflict or are from indigenous communities. Though it is no longer regarded as an emergency response to a short-term crisis, but it has proven efficient as an answer to more structural poverty problems.

Another commendable example towards ensuring food security for everyone was taken up by Brazil in the form of ‘Fome Zero’ or Zero Hunger program. The program launched in 2003 with the goal that all people be able to access enough and the right kinds of foods, to meet basic nutritional needs and support health. Fome Zero is based on a multi-sectoral approach at the public policy level, involving policies and programs around social protection and safety nets, education, food production, health services, drinking water, and sanitation. This  can serve as a role model for national commitment to making better nutrition a top priority. 

Another best practice, Participatory budgeting (PB), has been the most serious effort to take democracy to the doorsteps of the citizens. The Workers Party and a coalition of civil society organizations of Brazil introduced PB in Porto Alegre in 1989. It soon spread to more than 250 municipalities. Several countries followed suit. PB is a process of democratic decision-making. It is a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. It allows citizens to identify, discuss and prioritize public spending projects and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. The Porto Alegre model is no longer used in the same way in Porto Alegre itself. It has lost its sheen elsewhere in Latin America.

Consulta previa (prior consultation) is another significant legal framework that some countries in Latin America have institutionalized to deepen democracy. It is the right of the indigenous and ethnic groups to be consulted on matters affecting their culture and heritage as established by ILO Convention 169. Its implementation has at best been patchy. While it has been successfully implemented by Peru’s Amazonian communities, progress is much slower as far as the Andean communities are concerned. Much of the natural resources are located in the region inhabited by the indigenous communities, consulta previa has given the people a say in the extraction of raw materials. However, many left-leaning governments have resorted to the so-called “progressive neo-extractism” to ‘fight poverty’. The indigenous groups have sharpened attacks on the Left arguing such model of development, which relies on the rapacious extraction of natural resources, entails environmental destruction and the fragmentation of indigenous territory.

Cuba’s medical internationalism

For nearly 60 years, Cuba has been sending healthcare professionals all over the globe. This is done partly to support those in need but also as a part of concerted campaign of its medical diplomacy and to make some money to help the country survive an ongoing US embargo. Since then, Cuba has established permanent medical missions in a number of countries. Over the last five decades, it has sent between 135,000 to 400,000 doctors abroad.

The tradition of medical internationalism in Cuba goes back to the first years of the Cuban Revolution. The country has dispatched 593 workers to 14 countries in the battle against Covid-19. According to the Cuban health ministry, 179 doctors, 399 nurses and 15 health technologists have been dispatched as part of Henry Reeve initiative. According to Helen Yaffe, free healthcare as a universal human right has been a key tenet now and in the 1959 Cuban Revolution which laid the foundation of medical internationalism thereby enforcing the idea and practice of sending medical teams abroad.

Even though the Cuban medical support has been helpful and hopeful to all those in desperate need, it also hasn’t been able to keep away from criticism. Some rights groups have accused Havana of exploiting its medical workers who are forced to work in unsafe environments. Others have criticized by calling the program “selectively humanitarian” which makes lower numbers of doctors available to the Cuban population. Many countries have been wary of accepting Cuba’s help due to its poor human rights record. While everyone may not find Cuba’s help genuine, this is perhaps the time to put ideological differences aside and focus on the joint effort against the global war of Coronavirus.

Zapatistas’ enduring legacy

The Zapatista movement was the first post-modern movement and it is still defiant in mountain strongholds. It rose up not just to fight indigenous repression, but also the globalization from above. It was a genuine popular movement striving for justice and for changing the status quo. Scholarly interest in the various indigenous movements in Latin America was shown only after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.The images of the Zapatistas were too striking to be missed—indigenous peasants with wooden rifles declaring war on the Mexican government. With their faces covered by black ski masks or red bandanas, the Zapatistas symbolically became the face of the faceless, the voice of the voiceless.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army had one-third women, some in bare feet. They became instant heroes of the left and an inspiration to indigenous groups and political romantics. There are still areas under their control where they have their own system of education, health, justice and security. They train their own teachers and doctors and some have their own currency. Their slogans have been equally instructive such as “cuando una mujeravanza, no hay hombre que retrocede (when a woman advances, no man is left behind) and “here you can buy or sell anything except indigenous dignity”. The Zapatistas spelt out their key priorities like revitalizing indigenous worldviews, building autonomous, locally focused food system and food sovereignty and gender equity. Mexican sociologist Gonzalez Casanova says that the Zapatistas represent a new way of approaching problems and alternatives beyond the old dilemmas of the left, defending life, water, land and forest. The Zapatista movement offered alternative ways to organize societies, economies and the food systems.

In 1990s, Colombia’s indigenous groups formed the Indigenous Social Alliance. It won a few seats in national parliament a few years later. Nationally visible indigenous parties came up in mid-1990s in Bolivia and Ecuador. In Bolivia, groups like the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, Movement towards Socialism and Pachakutic Movement of Plurinational Unity gained traction. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) in Ecuador has tasted electoral success and acquired considerable clout. It initially supported the left but later broke from its tutelage. The indigenous movements have helped in the democratization process. The group has combined indigenous culture and state institutions in innovative ways.

Limits of caudillismo

Latin Americans are masters at creating leaders, prophets and gods. The bane of Latin America is the system of caudillos (strongmen).  Hence some are seeking leaderless revolutions. They contend, we don’t need leaders, certainly not big leaders. As Emile Zapata says, “strong leaders make a weak people.”

Populism the bane

Populism continues to be the bane of Latin American polity. Power and authority are still configured in relation to caudillos, not institutions. Parliaments, judiciary, party system and civil society provide little institutional counterweights to political abuses by the political class. The caudillos promise magical solutions and people still fall for them. Ironically, to remain in power, the maximum leader exerts and abuses state force but also propagate the myth that he/she is there by the popular will. The growing polarization has not allowed institutions like the judiciary and the police to become autonomous and independent. Populism has acquired a “new dimension” with decisive leaders pushing nationalism, demonizing opposition and stirring up issues that divide society. Populismhas marginalized the centrist forces and removed their bonding powers resulting in gridlock in parliament and diluting public trust in its efficacy.

Bertrand Russell says that the game of politics is the process by which people choose the man who will get the blame. Latin America has witnessed the masterful play of such blame game. Populist leaders thrive on confrontation and chaos. Bolsonaro is using the pandemic to stir up his base. He has dismissed Coronavirus as “just a little flu”, “we will all die one day”.

Conclusion

Some of the best practices in Latin America have caught the attention of the world. Whether these are replicable or not requires further research and study.The region has been long experimenting with novel political, social and economic initiatives and practices which resonate with people across the globe. Some consider the region to be a land of endless revolutions, but it has launched not only slogans but sustainable alternatives as well. It has maintained the ideal of ‘Protesta con propuesta’(Protest with purpose). However, many have questioned the robustness of these measures when Latin America is witnessing the end of the commodity boom and the defeat of left-wing governments. The historical conflicts, the silhouettes of authoritarianism and past of caudillismo still weigh heavily on the Latin American present.

Will the region be able to overcome its non-democratic past and advance with its revitalized worldview? Or will it succumb to the ghosts of the old despotic regimes? There are no easy answers. It has to do with Latin American psychology, “the rejection of what is real and possible.” Latin America also fits in Hannah Arendt’s description how the most radical revolutionary becomes “conservative the day after the revolution”. That of course doesn’t deter Latin Americans from constructing alternative utopias.

*Shimone Jaini is doing Masters from Centre of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian andLatin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi

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Americas

Biden’s worrisome construct of security and self-defense in the first year of his term

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is failing so far. He can’t get the Iran nuclear diplomacy on track. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster seen by all, placing an unusually high number of weapons and armaments in the hands of the Taliban and leaving everyone behind, to the point that one wonders if it was intentional. The US military has been able to accomplish far more impressive and bigger logistics tasks in the past, so when they want to they can do it.

More worrisome, however – and because it is also oriented towards future impacts – is Biden’s construct of vital concepts such as security, international peace and self-defense which has already displayed a consistent pattern during the first year of his term. The signs are already there, so let me bring them out to the surface for you.

Treating a counter-attack in self-defense as an original, first-move strike

This is a pattern that can be noticed already in Biden’s reading of what constitutes defense. It first struck me in a place where you might not think of looking. It originated from the criticism of the previous Trump administration’s support for the destructive Saudi Arabia campaign on Yemen, leaving Yemen as the biggest famine and disaster on the planet. To avoid the same criticism, the Biden administration decided to do what it always does – play technocratic and legalistic, and hope that people won’t notice. On the face of it, it looked like Biden ended US participation by ending the “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia. Then in the months after the February decision, reports started surfacing that the US actually continues doing the same, and now most recently, some troops from Afghanistan were redirected towards Yemen. Biden didn’t end Yemen; he set up a task force to examine and limit US military action only to defensive capabilities, which sounds good to a general observer. It reminds me of that famous Einstein saying that all the big decisions were to be taken by him and all the small decisions were to be taken by his wife, but there hasn’t been one big decision so far. So see, it just turns out that everything falls under defense, ask the lawyers. Usually no one would object to the well-established right to defend yourself. The problem with that is that the US is actually in Yemen. Treating any counter-strike and any response to your presence as an original, first-move attack is not only problematic but it also simply doesn’t work in legal terms. It goes along the lines of “well, I am already here anyways, so your counter-response in self-defense is actually an attack and I get to defend myself”. If the issue was only with terrorist or rebel organizations (because let’s face it, who cares about the Houthies in Yemen?) I don’t think we would be discussing this. But as you guessed it, this approach can already be traced as a pattern in Biden’s thinking and the way he forges alliances, draws red lines and allows things to happen, and it stretches to areas that most people definitely care about such as a possible military conflict between the US and China.

Let’s take the newest development from today. The US just announced that it has entered into a trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which is encirclement of China par excellence. Where it gets interesting is that the trilateral partnership is purported to be only for “advanced defense capabilities”. The equivalent of this is someone from another city squatting at the door step in your apartment, inviting two others to join, and then when in the morning you push them and step on them to go to work, the squatters claiming that you attacked them and calling the police on you in your own apartment. This is Biden’s concept of self-defense: since I am already here in your space, you are attacking me.

The US is trying to start something with China but it doesn’t know how to, and China seems completely unconcerned with the US.  Chinese leader Jinping doesn’t even want to meet Biden, as became clear this week. China doesn’t care about the US and just wants to be left alone. They already said that in clear terms by reading it out loud to Wendy Sherman last month. Biden didn’t have to ask for a meeting in that phone call this week because he already knew the answer. Wendy Sherman got a clear signal on her China visit that the US president won’t be getting that coveted red carpet roll-out any time soon.

So the story says that the US is going all the way to the other side of the world and staging military presence there but only to defend itself. The US has no choice but to move in to defend all the US citizens at risk in the Indian Ocean — that’s the stand-up comedy line of the week. It is staging military presence right at China’s doorstep — if not in Chinese waters, and the idea is “yes, that’s your turf but now that I’m here, if you push me to leave, you are attacking me”. This is the strategy of narcissists and those that are looking to point the finger to their opponent when they just don’t have anything, so they stage something. China is in the long-term game, playing against itself. The US is that number 2 that’s trying to create provocation. In the Indo-Pacific, the US is biting more than it can chew. China is not a big mouth or one to throw around military threats. That’s the US style: “be very careful, we might bomb you if you don’t do what we say”. A dog that barks doesn’t bite. On the other hand, China is more like a Ferrari — it will go from 0 to 200 in seconds and then it will go back to its business. The US and Biden will be left whimpering but no one will jump to save the US from its own folly because self-defense in the US packaging is not even bought by the US government itself. Even they don’t buy their own packaging. So why should anyone else?

Treating embarrassing discoveries and things that don’t go my way as a threat to international peace

This one is a big one. With this one, Biden is playing with the queen, namely action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in the name of international peace and security. A threat to international peace and security is grounds for action under Chapter 7 which includes military action, and it’s never to be spoken lightly. Words have consequences. The UN Security Council rarely specifies grounds for action under chapter 7 for threats to international peace and security but it’s enough to take a look at the practice: resolutions were passed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, in response to 9/11, against Kaddafi who was marching toward Benghazi to wipe out the people in 2011, in relation to genocide, etc. Grounds for a threat to international peace can’t be “because I don’t like the way things are turning out for me”.

Peace and security are not like beauty – in the eye of the beholder. There has to be an actual or imminent attack and actual military action or violence. Loose interpretations of threats to peace and security are a sign of weak leadership.

Leaders who construct dissent and criticism as terrorism in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as I have argued about the FBI previously in the left media, are weak leaders. In smearing Martin Luther King, the FBI argued national security. As director Oliver Stone said in Cannes this summer, when he was investigating the JFK assassination, every time he was getting close, he heard “national security”. 

You can see a lot about the character of a nation by the way it constructs security, and notice traits such as narcissism, weakness, cheating. The Biden Administration has to know that a threat to international peace and security can’t be “things that make my government look bad”. In 2001, the world followed the US in Afghanistan because there was an actual military attack. The world won’t follow the Biden administration on a bogus threat to international peace that can best be summed up as a major embarrassment for the US government. Suggesting a link is a threat to the fabric of international society. Not only is it a sign of national narcissism but also a sign of arbitrariness and authoritarianism. Treating criticism and the exposure of US government crimes as if it were a military attack is what horror movies are made of. What’s next? Droning journalists?

Treating issues which are a subject to treaties, rules and negotiations as a threat to international peace  

The Biden security construct stretches to various regions, including my own. This first struck me with Biden’s executive order regarding the Western Balkans when he tied blocking these countries from EU accession to a threat to international peace, which carries significant consequences. If a country, let’s say Bulgaria, is exercising its lawful right to veto EU processes, hypothetically, based on Biden’s understanding, the US could table a resolution for Chapter 7 action to punish an EU member-state for blocking the accession of an EU candidate because that’s a threat to international peace. That could hypothetically lead to military action against an EU country making use of its veto. Biden doesn’t have a veto in the EU. Do you know who does? Bulgaria. So until Biden becomes an EU country he doesn’t have a say.

Biden was visibly irritated that the process of EU accession has been stalling for quite some time, especially with N. Macedonia and Albania at the EU’s doorstep, so he decided to give it a go. Let’s not forget that the Balkans are a favorite Biden region and this goes back to the 1990s. I have written about it before: Biden is stuck in the 2000s when if you mentioned the Western Balkans the words international peace were a guaranteed association. Not anymore. Negotiations, rules and voting are the peaceful and reasonable way to resolve issues, agree or even not agree in some situations, and are the opposite of war and aggression. Treating these ways as a threat to peace is just the rhetoric of those who can’t get their way. But it’s also indicative of a worrisome trend with Biden that anything that the US government doesn’t like can be dressed as a threat to international peace, which carries the most significant of all consequences in the international arena.

Treating lawful counter-measures as a threat to national security

Perhaps the best and most fascinating example of lawful counter-measures I ever heard was brought by Andrew Clapham at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Here is the story. The UK issued unlawful sanctions on a country. In response, lawful counter-measures by that country targeted jam exports because a jam factory in Scotland was the key to turning the elections. The targeted counter-measures worked, hit jam exports, discontent people in the region voted the other way and the government that put in place the sanctions to begin with was ousted. This was a brilliant example that you hit where it hurts and you do it lawfully. Counter-measures don’t have to be identical. The US likes to put tariffs on Louis Vuitton bags in retaliation when it deals with France, for example. In the Trump trade wars, Europe would hit bourbon and jeans exports as a counter-measure. You hit their signature product. Not all counter-measures are illegal and count as an attack. International law is full of examples.

Similarly, lawsuits against a government are a lawful counter-measure. This area reveals another part of Biden’s worrisome construct of national security. A threat to sue the US government cannot in and of itself be a threat to national security. Tortured reading of what is national security is a sign of weak leaders, narcissists, those on the losing end, or straight up losers – or all of the above. 

Treating lawful counter-measures as a cause for self-defense is not only a sign of a wrong understanding of self-defense, but is the ultimate sign of narcissism. Usually those who attack know better and brace for impact in anticipation of the counter-measures. Narcissists, on the other hand, cry that they are being attacked when they receive a counter-strike in response. Strategists know better.

Mistreatment of whistleblowers, critics and opponents as spies and as a threat to national security

This one is an easy one. Only losers treat whistleblowers and critics as spies and as an automatic threat to national security. Take the treatment that Gary Stahl has received at the hands of the Biden Administration and the FBI, for example. Again, the US government doesn’t get to construe a huge embarrassment (in what will soon be revealed to shows the true criminal nature of the US government) as a threat to international peace. This is a problem for America. Not only doesn’t China plan to attack militarily the US any time soon over what’s to come, but China is largely unconcerned with the US and would like to be left alone. Any talk about a risk of military conflict could only mean that it is the US that plans to attack because they are embarrassed they got caught red-handed and the world will see the US government’s true nature. Talk of threat to international peace has a very high threshold. No one cares about how America would feel – that’s your problem, not an issue of international peace. 

The Biden concept of security is that of an ugly, pretentious, old woman who is told she can’t enter because her ticket is not valid. She then throws a feat screaming she was attacked, beaten and insulted, expecting everyone to be on her side. But the world simply doesn’t care about the problems of this pain-in-the-ass anymore. The US government will have to try much harder if they want to present the issue as anything close to security and self-defense, let alone a threat to international peace. That tune is old and there are no buyers. 

The US surely thinks very highly of itself if they think that a scandal like that is worthy of a military conflict but literally no one else sees the US as this important anymore. This scandal will matter only to America in what it reveals about all the layers of the US government across rank, institutions and administrations. That’s it. It ends there. Any talk of Chapter 7 threshold is war mongering and no one will care. 

People talk about the Biden doctrine on Afghanistan but the Biden doctrine that will be sealed in history will be something along the lines of “Anytime I get caught, it’s a threat to international peace and security.” This is how Biden will be remembered in history: for creative writing endeavors in the security field and no substantial foreign policy achievements. 

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Americas

Biden’s credibility restoration plan

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Although damages of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot be easily undone, by taking a series of wise steps, Biden can send a strong signal that America is coming back.

Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan has shattered his reputation as a safe haven for allies. This is while, he pledged to restore U.S. leadership after Trump by confronting China’s and Russia’s growing totalitarian ambitions, restoring historic alliances with European allies, and ending the never-ending conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But he is not the only President whose decision has eventually damaged the United States’ global reputation. Donald Trump’s capitulation deal with the Taliban, Barack Obama’s indolence in Syria, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq have all tarnished the United States’ credibility around the world. The question now; however, is no longer whether Biden and his predecessors should have acted differently. It’s how the United States can minimize the damage.

Biden should begin by speaking the truth. So far, the President has failed to admit the failure of his withdrawal plan. Biden ought to be straightforward with himself, the American people, and the whole world.

Biden’s policy should, of course, vary depending on the area and global conditions. To promote its interests in the Indo-Pacific area, the United States should station a few ambassadors, including a Navy or Coast Guard attaché, in the Pacific Island countries of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. In addition, a considerable number of troops currently stationed in Afghanistan should be redeployed to the Pacific. Finally, Biden’s administration should engage with U.S. defense contractors to speed up the transfer of military equipment to Taiwan. Getting Taiwan its armaments swiftly would be a powerful show of support as a steadfast ally, as well as provide modern platforms to prevent a Chinese amphibious invasion.

The Biden administration should also do all in its power to rebuild relations with European partners. For the very first time, NATO invoked Article 5, which identifies an assault on one member as an assault on all. Since then, soldiers from a variety of countries have fought and died alongside US troops. Nonetheless, Biden decided to leave Afghanistan without consulting the governments of these countries, leaving them to plan emergency rescue efforts for their populations. Close allies of the United States are understandably enraged. America’s behavior is being chastised in Paris, Berlin, and the British House of Commons on both sides of the aisle.

Last month, at a meeting of regional leaders in Baghdad, Macron made it clear that, unlike the Americans, he was dedicated to remaining in the Middle East. “Whatever the American choice is,” he stated in public remarks in Baghdad, “we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight terrorism as long as terrorist groups function and the Iraqi government requests our assistance.” It was a clear example of Macron’s idea of “strategic autonomy,” which implies European independence from U.S. security policy, and an attempt to use the United States’ humiliation to underline that Europe and Washington were not always on the same page. At an emergency G7 summit, Mr. Biden is said to have turned down allied requests to extend the August 31 deadline for exit.

The Biden administration’s recent decision not to penalize Nord Stream 2 pipeline participants has enraged Europeans as well. Poland and Ukraine underlined their worries in a joint statement about the ramifications of choices taken on the pipeline without the participation of nations directly impacted, claiming that Nord Stream 2 poses both geological and ecological risks to Europe.

As a result, whether it’s diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime, humanitarian aid for the Afghan people, or any other major issue, the US should not take any more action without engaging partners. Mr. Biden should also dispatch senior members of his national security team to Europe and other regions of the world to reinforce America’s commitment to their security.

As to the Middle East, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in a Foreign Affairs article described “America’s opportunity in the Middle East,” suggesting that diplomacy may work where previous military interventions have failed. The United States’ involvement in the area is frequently portrayed in military or counter-terrorism terms, and as a binary option between going all-in or going all-out. Instead, Sullivan advocated for a strategy that relied more on “aggressive diplomacy to generate more long-term benefits.”

Accordingly, the President and his team in Vienna should get the new Iranian administration back to the negotiating tables and rejoin the JCPOA and ease the tensions in the Middle East. Also, the United States should do all possible in Afghanistan to secure the safe transit of Afghans who qualify for U.S. visas to the Kabul airport – and to keep flights flying until they are able to leave. This should apply to both Afghans who dealt closely with the United States’ military, and to those who engage with U.S. media and humanitarian organizations and must get visas from a third country. In addition to ensuring that the United Nations and humanitarian groups have the resources they need, the United States should cooperate with its Security Council allies to guarantee that the Taliban does not hinder the free flow of help.

Moreover, to follow any influx of jihadists to Afghanistan, intelligence agencies will have to rededicate resources and increase surveillance. They must be pushed to coordinate their efforts on the Taliban in order to keep the most threatening groups under control. The United States could set an example by agreeing to accept a fair share of any displaced Afghans. Neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan, which already have millions of Afghan refugees, are closing their borders.

Biden may not be able to prevent all of the disastrous repercussions of the Afghan catastrophe, but he must act now before the harm to U.S. interests and moral stature becomes irreversible. By taking these steps, he can send a strong statement to the world that he has learned his lessons and that America is coming back.

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Americas

Of Friends And Countries

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“The bird, a nest; the spider, a web; man, friendship,” William Blake reminded us in 1790.  Much earlier, Confucius warned in the 5th century BC, “Have no friends not equal to yourself.”  Seneca was ahead of his time and certainly not thinking of the business lunch when he noted that cultivated friendships for personal gain were of limited duration.

When it comes to countries, we have been informed repeatedly, there are no friends … just interests.  So it is with Afghanistan, from which the US decided to withdraw unilaterally and quickly.  Allies such as Britain who still have a presence there were caught off-guard.  Not altogether happy, slang words like ‘doolally’ have been used to describe President Biden who was also reluctant to respond promptly to British prime minister Boris Johnson’s urgent calls, and kept him waiting several days.  So much for the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries.

It wasn’t always a cosy relationship.  Quite frosty for the first hundred years or so after American independence, it included an attack on Washington and the city’s temporary capture.  During the Civil War they helped the Confederacy surreptitiously but as American power and industrial might continued to grow, the British realized an accommodation would be to their advantage and proceeded to emphasize ties of kinship, language and even democracy.  In the event, they even persuaded the US government to help in two world wars and even join them eventually.

Next, consider the case of England and France.  After the Normann conquest in 1066, French became the court language and continued so for a good three hundred years.  But the relationship also started a rivalry often with claims and counterclaims of being the rightful ruler, which sometimes led to war.  Following the French revolution came the Napolionic wars and their devastation, culminating in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo and French defeat. 

The 19th century also saw the German states being united by Bismarck, and, through industrialization, turned into a single powerful country.  Viewed as a threat by both Britain and France it brought about an entente cordiale … a rapprochement between centuries old implacable enemies.

Their efforts to choke off German growth could have only one result in the end — war.  And the 20th century suffered two with devastating loss of life.  The plan to help Germany (at least the western half) recover after the Second World War had flattened it, brought it within the US ambit.  Lest anyone think the aid was entirely altruistic, far from it, for a new threat had arisen … that of the mighty Soviet Union, and a quivering Western Europe was trying to shore up its side.  Yes indeed, countries do not have friends … only interests.

And so the Afghans who helped the US (the translators and such like) tried to get away during the withdrawal; with the rapid Taliban takeover, they could feel the threat to life and limb in their bones, and some knew they were on lists.  Many did leave on the American planes but out of the crowds packing Kabul airport, most were left behind.

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