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The voice for multilateralism in the U.S. never fades out

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As the U.S. presidential election of 2020 approaches unpredictably, people around the world wonder if the United States would continue its current foreign policy reiterated by the Trump administration over the past years. If so, whether the United States would return to its so-called unilateralism with the theme of “America first” policy or not? This is a tough question related to the globalized international community and particularly in view of the devastating effects of the Covid-19 to the world. Accordingly, how to defend multilateralism effectively will be one of the main challenges to all the countries of the world.

As a matter of fact, the debate between unilateralism and multilateralism is not a new issue. Two decades ago, Joseph Nye put it, there are three main approaches in terms of the global governance: isolationism, unilateralism, multilateralism. The first one persists in public opinion, but it is not a major strategic option for American foreign policy. Given this, the main battle lines are drawn between two kinds of internationalists, those who advocate unilateralism and those who prefer multilateral tactics. Politically and ideologically, some unilateralists advocate an assertive “damn-the-torpedo-approach” to promote American values, calling for multipolar moment into a unipolar era by all means. In brief, unilateralists hold that American intentions are good and its hegemony is benevolent. In contrast, pro-multilateralism groups have argued that since the beginning of the 20 century, America has risen to world power and then acted as the world leader. As Teddy Roosevelt advised that the United States should speak softly but carry a big stick. Due to the overarching power possessed by America, it is necessary for the U.S. to work with other nations on global issues in a multilateral manner whenever possible. For sure, multilateralism involves costs, but in a long run and in a larger picture, they are outweighed by the benefits. In a word, action to shape multilateralism now is a good investment for the future of the United States. No doubt, even some of the multilateral advocates put it that “not all multilateral arrangements are good or in America’s interests, and the United States should occasionally use unilateral tactics in certain areas or on some issues.”

In light of the previous argument, it is fair to say that “multilateralism is not under threat in most of the world. It is under threat because of the United States,” as economist Jeffrey Sachs remarked at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on February 5, 2020. As a prominent scholar and also a seasoned advisor to multinational corporations and foreign governments, Sachs believes that the U.S. was the predominant economic and technological power in the world for decades. Yet, with the emerging powers or regional economic blocs, this is no longer the case. For sure, the United States is still the most powerful country economically, technologically, and in particular militarily. But the prospect is that the EU is not only a larger market but also intends to be a responsible “civilian power” globally in the 21st century. Meanwhile, China is a comparable market and equally a determined rising power in an overall terms. In addition, it is a blunder to ignore the military power of Russia and the technological weight of Japan.

Turning to the domestic issue, Sachs frankly said that the U.S. by far is the most powerful military country in the world; and, no doubt, it has 6,000 nuclear warheads, 800 military bases around the world, let alone the U.S. have been evolved in 14 shooting wars right now. But it learns war after war that the military eventually can solve no political problems. He admitted that “the U.S. is a problem. It has been a far more significant problem with Donald Trump.” No matter if he may or may not be the President after November of 2020, the question is that the U.S. has become exactly more complicated for the world since 2017. For example, the United States has blocked every multilateral initiative in recent years. It is the only country pulling out the Paris Climate Agreement. It is the only country that pulled out the JCPOA Agreement with Iran. Moreover, Sachs openly recognized that the so-called trade war between China-U.S. is a fake or a joke. It is essentially a U.S. trade war on China. In doing so, Sachs is seen as an honest and respectful scholar with wide popularity across the EU and China as well.

Unlike the Trump administration or many other scholars if you like to call them as scholars, Sachs deemed that the U.S. attack on China is an unpremeditated and even not unitary in the United States. Due to the fact that China’s rising technological capacity such as Huawei and ZTE, the unilateralists in the U.S. policy-making began to realize that China is gaining massive technological capability in artificial intelligence and other security related areas. Because China’s talented youths are so huge with the great potentials, such as each year’s well-trained PhDs in the fields of sciences and technologies, the United States makes all efforts to maintain its solo hegemony which is itself at odds with the principle of the balance of power. As Sachs argued that historically there is no monopoly of knowledge, there is no monopoly of talent. This is driving U.S. strategists crazy because its grand strategy is based on primacy rather than shared responsibilities with other major powers or multilateral organizations.

It is self-evident that Sachs is a scholar but his vision is far-reaching and much more inspiring than any pundits in the U.S. He is a truly patriotic American but never be unilateralist. He argued that there is no U.S. primary, European primary or Asian primacy and likes. It is just fantasy of unilateralists who ignore the age of globalization and that is not how the world works anymore in the new century. Looking at what the Trump administration had done internationally, it has dismembered the WTO and abandoned the WHO. Accordingly, the U.S. has arbitrarily manipulated the exchange rate. Another case is that in January 2020 when Iraq requested the U.S. military forces out, the U.S. Treasury Department warned that it would confiscate Iraqi foreign exchange reserves at the New York Federal Bank, if Bagdad persists in pushing the U.S. troops out.“This is a complete violation of every international rule and this is also a reflection of an imperial power in decline,” as Sachs observed.

It is true that for many reasons the world can’t stop America’s hegemony even though it is a dangerous power or country. Yet, the nations over the world need to realize that it is beneficial to them to work together to promote the Paris Climate Agreement along with the G20 summits. In addition, the world needs to strengthen the role of the United Nations and other multilateral organizations such as IMF, the World Bank, WTO and currently the WHO. At the present time, the world should also be confident in China and other emerging powers. As Sachs put it, Trump and his team don’t have a majority backing at home and abroad as well. There is no attack on multilateralism as a policy that he could discern anywhere when traveling. But it is true that there is a fear of the United States and its irrational president in the White House today.

Looking into the future, we can see that although the world faces the multiple problems now, it is not in a dire time of multilateralism. Yet, the key problem is that if each country backs down one by one, then the bully from the unilateralism gets the way. Fortunately, the EU openly supports multilateralism, China has reiterated its resolve to defend the world order in line with the multilateralism and democratic global governance. Russia and Japan along with many other countries all over the world reject any arrogant claim of the “new Rome” or the title like the sole superpower. Meanwhile, since the United States is the indispensable nation in reconstructing the world order, the world always welcomes a powerful and responsible U.S. as one of the key players rather than a “new Rome” in the world affairs.

In sum, perhaps a Chinese saying serves a motto for the global village: “harmony with no uniformity”. This is not only the consensus of the international community or society but also a coordinated move forward to a shared future of community.

*Xie Hongyan & Jia Yumei are currently studying International Relations at School of International & Public Affairs, Jilin University. Meanwhile they are research assistants to the national security & development projects.

Xie Hongyan currently studying International Relations at School of International & Public Affairs, Jilin University. Research assistant to the national security & development projects.

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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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Competition and cooperation between China and the United States and the eighth priority

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In mid-March U.S. President Biden held his first press conference since taking office. Speaking about Sino-U.S. relations, Biden said: “I will prevent China from surpassing the United States of America during my term of office”. At the same time, he also stressed that he would not seek to confront China, but to keep up fierce competition between the two countries.

Focusing on competition between major powers is one of the important changes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. As the strengths of China and the United States draw closer together, the United States increasingly feels that its own ‘hegemony’ is threatened. During Trump’s tenure, the United States has caused a trade war, a technology war, and even a complete disagreement with China in an attempt to curb China’s development momentum and erode Chinese positions.

The expansion of the competitive field and the escalation of the competitive situation have become the hallmarks of Sino-U.S. relations during this period. Although Biden’s policy line has made substantial changes to ‘Trumpism’, it still has much of its predecessor’s legacy with regard to its policy towards China.

The first foreign policy speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken listed China Challenge as the eighth priority, preceded by:

1) ending the COVID-19 pandemic;

2) overcoming the economic crisis, reviving the economy at home and abroad, as well as and building a more stable and inclusive global economy;

3) renewing democracy;

4) reforming immigration and creating a humane and effective immigration system;

5) rebuilding alliances, revitalising U.S. ties with allies and partners with the system that the military calls force multiplier;

6) tackling climate change and leading a green energy revolution;

7) securing U.S. leadership in technology; and

8) confronting China and managing the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, i.e. relations with China, which is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the international system and equilibria.

The eighth medium-term guideline for the national security strategy sees China as an important competitor. These guidelines clearly show that competition still sets the tone in the way President Biden’s Administration’s manages relations with China, as was the case in the previous four-year period.

At a press conference on March 26, 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the above statements were not surprising. It is clear that China and the United States are competing on different interest levels.

The key factor, however, is to compete fairly and justly and to improve oneself. The appeal to the other side is moderation and restraint, not life or death, or a zero-sum game. These words are along the same lines as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement when he spoke about Sino-U.S. relations at a session of the National Congress of People’s Representatives of the People’s Republic of China (the Chinese Parliament). It is not only a response to the U.S. strategy of competition with China, but it also provides a model for the future way in which superpowers should proceed together.

The reality of Sino-U.S. competition is unavoidable, but competition can be divided into benign and vicious. The former is a winning model for “improving oneself and understanding the needs of the other side”.

Since Deng Xiaping’s reforms and opening up to international trade, China has begun its own reconstruction. It has continuously widened the scope for benign competition and has changed its mindset by actively embracing the world’s different political parties and participating in international competition. It has also inspired enthusiasm for innovation and creativity and made progress in various fields.

At the same time, development has also provided ample opportunities for countries around the world and injected growth momentum into the global economy: this is a typical example of China’s good interaction and common development with all countries around the globe.

Conversely, fierce competition means breaking rules and systems and even breaking the demarcation line to prevent or contain the opponent, and this is usually followed by fierce conflicts.

The two World Wars of the last century were extreme examples of violent competition between great powers: the first as a clash between capitalist imperialisms in search of new markets; the second as a result of mistakes made in the peace treaties that ended the Great War, plundering the losers and causing misery, resentment and chauvinistic desires.

In today’s world, competition without respect for the other side has not disappeared from the scene of history. Trump Administration’s frantic anti-China activity over the last four years has not only failed to make the United States ‘great again’, but has caused a linear decline in its national competitiveness, at least according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020 published by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development, which sees the United States dropping from third to tenth place. Besides the fact that its international image has seriously plummeted and Sino-U.S. relations have hit the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations. It can clearly be seen that fierce competition will only restrain its promoters and ultimately harm the others, themselves and the international community.

In December 2020 General Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a body that brings together the Chiefs of Staff of each branch of the U.S. military and the Head of the National Guard Bureau), said in an interview that ‘great powers must compete. This is the essence of the world’.

There is no problem with this statement: it is not wrong, but it is important to maintain a state of competition and contact between major powers, precisely to ensure that it does not turn into conflicts or wars that are fatal to mankind and the planet as a whole.

The gist of the speech shows that some U.S. elites also believe that China and the United States should adhere to the principle of ‘fighting without breaking each other’. The importance and the overall and strategic nature of Sino-U.S. relations determine that no one can afford the zero-sum game, which is a lose-lose as opposed to a win-win game – hence we need to ensure that competition between the two countries stays on the right track.

Competition between China and the United States can only be fair and based on rules and laws. This is the basic rule of international relations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations as its point of reference.

Regardless of the common interests of China, the United States or peoples in the world, both countries should make this system promote healthy and fair competition, thus turning it into the greatest value of sharing and cooperation.

China’s goal has never been to surpass the United States, but to advance steadily and become better and no longer a prey to imperialism and colonialism as it has been the case since the 19th century, when Great Britain waged the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 – 1856-1860) to have not only the opportunity, but also the right to export drugs to the Middle Empire – hence Great Britain was the first pusher empowered and authorized by the force of its weapons.

Although – by its own good fortune -the United States has never been England, it should not always be thinking of surpassing the others or fearing being overtaken by the others, but should particularly focus on Secretary of State Blinken’s first seven priorities and raise its expectations.

China should show its traditional political wisdom and manage Sino-U.S. relations in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that Sino-U.S. relations can develop in a healthy and stable way for the good of the whole planet.

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