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Doomed to escalation? Biden follows Trump’s Foreign and Trade Policy Shift toward China

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The high-official U.S.-China meeting in Alaska gives a foretaste of how the new Biden administration will address the challenges with China. In the opening statement, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken said the U.S. would “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies. Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”The Biden administration is thus continuing on the path taken by Trump vis-à-vis China, although Biden favors a multilateral strategy with allies to address challenges with China, as evidenced by the Quad dialogue with leaders of Australia, India, and Japan.

Regardless of how to evaluate Trump’s handling of China, it broke with path dependencies in U.S.-China relations, especially trade policy. President Trump began a trade war with China leading to tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. By citing U.S. security risks to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and ban G5 technology from Huawei, trade became a major security issue under Trump. Even if the Trump administration reached the so-called “phase one” deal with China, it can be rather seen as a trade ceasefire than a lasting trade peace.

There is no sign that Biden will lift tariffs against Chinese goods. He ordered a review of supply chains for critical technologies to reduce U.S. dependence on China. Even the public rhetoric continues to be agnostic and aggressive as seen at the U.S.-China talks in Alaska. In addition to trade, issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea led to growing tensions between the U.S. and China during the Trump presidency and continue to do so. 

Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy toward China undeniably had an impact on public opinion; with other events such as China’s aggression in the South China Sea, the protests in Hong Kong, and reports about the genocide against Uighurs doing their part. The result is anall-time high in unfavorable views of China. Among the American public,77 percent have an unfavorable view of China and45 percent view China as the greatest enemy. Despite talk of a divided America, Democrats and Republicans are united in their negative views of China. As a result, the president and members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, have to promise a tough stance on China to avoid being labeled soft.

Trump also shifted the stance of the Republican Party on trade and economic policy, especially addressing China. The Republican Party was known to be the party of free trade for decades. Trump has not only silenced free-trade supporters but altered the Republican paradigm. Sen. Marc Rubio (R-Fla) called fora “pro-American industrial policy” and recognizing “the perils of free-market fundamentalism” when addressing the challenge of China. The Biden administration supports an industrial policy that could pump billions of dollars into the US economy to advance competition in future technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

But not only on trade, but also on other issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, tensions over Taiwan, and protests in Hong Kong, there is a bipartisan consensus to get tough on China. All in all, whether it was Trump’s rhetoric and policies, shifting public opinion, or actions by the Chinese Communist Party, Washington across party lines increasingly sees China as a strategic threat.

The growing tensions, aggressive rhetoric, and confrontational policies between the U.S. and China raise the issue salience and public attention. Increasing issue salience makes negotiation failure more likely when negotiations are agonistic. The reason is so-called audience costs and reputational losses. Audience costs are losses that a domestic audience imposes on a political leadership if it backs down from its own demands or threats, regardless if such giving in would be good from an economic or security standpoint. Reputational losses describe the long-term loss of credibility a negotiator would suffer if she would back down from a threat.

Concerns about potential audience costs and reputational losses tie a negotiator’s hand. On the one hand, this can be a bargaining advantage for a negotiator because it makes threats more credible. On the other, it also makes it difficult for a negotiator to give in, and therefore increases the risk of negotiation failure. Research shows that audience costs and reputation can lead to bargaining failures and escalation. Because the hand-tying effect of both increases as an issue becomes more salient, public aggressive rhetoric as in Alaska is not just cheap talk but prevents conflict resolutions by tying the hands of negotiators in the future (although the effect may still be small because the demands and threats were vague).

The resulting tensions and negotiation failures initiate a vicious cycle in which both sides perceive the other more and more as an economic and security threat or enemy. Overtime, disputed goods can then become intangible and indivisible. For example, a trade conflict is then not anymore just about economic gains and losses, but related to security or even symbolic value and national honor. Conflict research shows that disputes about intangible stakes fuel tensions and increase the risk of escalation. An initial win-win situation can turn into a win-lose or even a lose-lose situation where I want to hurt the other side even if it hurts myself.  

The described mutually reinforcing trends supplement the so-called Thucydides trap. The Thucydides trap describes a tendency toward war because an existing great power feels threatened by a rising power. While the Thucydides trap describes abstractly how power shifts lead to war, research on international negotiations and conflict helps to better understanding inherent dynamics in negotiations that prevent conflict resolution and are key to achieve cooperation.

Dr. Holger Janusch is an associate professor in the North American Studies Program at the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms University in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he worked as a guest professor at the Andrássy University in Budapest, Hungary. Prior to this, he was an assistant professor at the Friedrich Alexander University in Nuremberg, Germany and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. He holds a doctorate degree in International Relations from the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He had numerous research stays at universities and ministries in countries such as the United States, Colombia, South Africa, and Vietnam. His research focus is on power in IR theory, international negotiations, and US foreign and trade policy.

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Is the US mainstream media the spying arm of the Biden Administration?

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The US mainstream media is biased. We’ve all heard this before. There is a reason why so many have turned towards Youtube, Twitter and alternative media over the past decade and it’s not only because of the “digitalization” of everything. It’s also about content. We already knew this.

What this past weekend in Geneva also did for me, however, is to make me realize that things are much worse than I thought when it comes to the US mainstream media. They are not just biased; they are actually running together with the US government as the US establishment undercover spying and propaganda arm. I did not expect that. I expected some sort of a bias, or a leaning – all media have that, after all – but the dirty tactics employed by US mainstream media go much deeper. Here is the fresh story.

First of all, let’s all get on the same page that the media has to be free to choose what to cover, whom to cover, how to cover it and how to package it and present it. That’s a given. We can’t fiddle with this assertion. That’s the starting point. Where it does get problematic, however, is when US media only spy on people and events by getting access under the pretense of reporting and by using its media privileges, but then don’t want to actually report anything, and use the material only for exchange with the US government. That’s what we call spying par excellence and it has nothing to do with media standards. It’s actually illegal.

So over the past weekend 24-26 Sept, the US media decided to play smart in Geneva. They were granted permissions and exclusive access and privileges stretching beyond what’s reasonable. The problem is that they were not looking for what they got their permissions for. The US media came to cover the surfing and sailing competition at the Tropical Beach Corner in Geneva, and they won’t run anything about it because they were disappointed that they got exactly that – a surfing and sailing competition. They got footage of the bbq at Villa Barton, but they don’t want to use any of it because they were disappointed that the material shows literally that – people having a bbq at the lake side. They filmed things like the lake shores, the industrial parts of Geneva which are not a landmark attracting the media, and small streets in Paquis and Champel which are also not Geneva landmarks, but okay. It turns out the US media were disappointed because the footage shows literally what they came for.

And then there is the cherry on top of the cake: the Graduate Institute HEI alumni gathering, which is a very private event only for the alumni. And no, the State Department did not belong there. No, you are not welcome to our alumni gathering, unless of course you’re alumni of the Institute and you came as HEI alumni acting in the intellectual internationalist spirit of the HEI alumni network – which, let’s face, was not the case.

The US media got a very exclusive access. The Graduate Institute HEI alumni network is not your grandma’s backyard potluck in Wyoming which you can just walk into because, you know, you are the media. It doesn’t work like that. The HEI alumni network is not a red carpet; it’s not a pompous, pretentious affair. It’s a private access network that does not want to be sold to the world as an elitist, pompous gathering. We are about substance, privacy and access. We are the opposite of the World Economic Forum. The HEI alumni network consists of top diplomats, leaders of international organizations, intellectuals, regulators and business people who are there to catch up with each other, to get the latest trends in private talks, including about what’s going to happen in nuclear diplomacy behind the scenes over the next months, and the trends in Swiss financial regulation, for example. So, if as media, you are getting such an exclusive access, you actually have to cover the event now. You can’t say that you were disappointed in what you saw, so you won’t cover it because the US media knew that what they were attending was literally a dinner with an award ceremony. Where is the US media coverage then?

It was a huge imposition to have outsiders and externals in our gala event on Saturday. I will not go in detail about all the strange requirements that these people had, which were obvious to us as alumni. Having endured all the inconvenience, now the Graduate Institute should be reaping the benefits of the US media coverage. So where is it? It should be coming, unless US media infiltrated us only to spy for the US government. As media, did you interview anyone such as the award recipients or VIP guests? Strange. Isn’t it.

Same goes for the Iran nuclear talks discussion for which US media had exclusive access to Grossi, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency. I engaged in a discussion with him and I was critical of the Biden administration and their diplomatic abilities. Grossi insisted that “they are trying very hard”. That reminded me of Jimmy Kimmel’s line: “he has no talent, yet he tries so hard”. That’s my assessment of the Biden administration so far. So US media went to cover Grossi and nuclear diplomacy, but they are now disappointed that they got exactly that, a discussion on nuclear diplomacy, so now they don’t want to report on it either.

In conclusion, if you film a surfing and sailing completion, the lake side, bbq at Villa Barton, life on the Geneva streets and parks, the HEI gala and a nuclear diplomacy event, and you are disappointed that you got exactly that, then the natural question is: what were you looking for then? If you got exactly what you went for, but you’re not happy and you won’t run it, then there is something else going on here.

You can’t run coverage of summer in Geneva 2021 and say it’s actually for summer 2022. That’s not how it works. If you’re reporting on a sailing and surfing competition happening in September 2021, you can’t run the news next year. So what did you see in Geneva? Geneva is waiting for its US media coverage. Where is it? We are waiting. You can’t just jerk everyone around, accumulate a lot and then just say that you didn’t get anything interesting because your aim was so different from your stated intentions. These are very dishonest media practices and it’s not even about journalism anymore. If you came to cover the Alumni awards of the Graduate Institute, you better be doing exactly that – you can’t wait until next year to run that. Were you hoping for top diplomats engaging in a drunk fist fight? Unless you get that, there is nothing interesting there. The equivalent is running interviews day after day but saying that you got nothing interesting because you didn’t catch me farting on camera, so you won’t use it.

In Geneva, we don’t like being jerked around, or spied on under the false pretenses of “media coverage”. So what is it then, American media? Make up your mind. Otherwise, to us you are just a bunch of US government spies who are just not that good at it, if we can catch you so quickly. The US should be placed in the last spots of the media freedom index. It’s time to see US mainstream media for what it really is.

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Afghanistan and Beginning of the Decline of American Power

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Has America’s disgraceful withdrawal from Afghanistan spoiled its global standing? The pictures of retreating American soldiers at Kabul International Airport have certainly reinforced the notion that the United States had lost control of the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover of the capital has also led many around the world to question America’s basic competence as a great military power.

At the end of the WW2 victory, the US became the dominant power in the international system. The new era was heralded as the harbinger of the ‘American Century’. The fall of communism in eastern Europe and the rest of the world allowed the West— and particularly its leaders, the United States, to go in any direction that it wanted.

After twenty years of war, the image, clout and confidence of the sole superpower go down in history, buried in the debris of destruction of Afghan war, which has lived up to its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’, Britain and Soviet Union were earlier in the 19th and 20th century.

The cost of Afghan war brings nothing for its future. Brown University’s cost of war report says that, “since invading Afghanistan in 2001, the United States has spent $ 2.313 trillion on the war, executing expenditure on life time care for American veterans of the war and future interest payments on money borrowed to fund the war”. CNBC writes, “yet it takes just nine days for the Taliban to seize every provincial capital, dissolve the army and overthrow the US backed government”.

Since the beginning of the 21th century, American’s contributions to global GDP have been decreased from 30% to 15% in 2020. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China— with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed.  The Formal Bilateral Influence Capacity (FBIC) index, a quantitative measure of multidimensional influence between pairs of states. Its report shows the erosion of US influence relative to Chinese influence across nearly every global region. Chinese influence outweighs US influence across much of Africa and Southeast Asia and has increased in former Soviet states. Chinese influence has also eroded the US advantages in South America, West Europe and East Asia.

 US has also become more inward-looking country. Biden has made clear that US foreign policy should serve only US interests. Even its military involvement will be scaled down even more.

The last two decade have brought significant shifts in global geopolitical dynamics. As Indian-American political commentator Fareed Zakariya argued in his 2008 book The Post-American World, “the fact that new powers are more strongly asserting their interests in the reality of the post-American world”.

As the US came to dominate the globe, the order it was morally underpinned by its belief in Manifested Destiny and economically underpinned by the US dollar as the reserve currency. The global order has unraveled mostly at the hands of the US itself. Its moral dimension started to come apart, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, not only disregarding the UN but also propagating lies about Saddam Hussain regime possessing weapons of mass destruction. The credibility of the economic order was damaged by the great recession of 2008, when major US financial institutions collapsed one after the other.

All of this coincides with the resurgence of Asia and emergence of China as the global economic power house. The rise of Trump, the glowing racial injustice the triggered the Black Lives Matter Movement and the near collapse of the health system amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

America’s competitors like Russia and China now hold the space in Afghanistan. Another bar for the American influence in the region. The lost military credibility in Afghanistan has global ramifications for the U.S.

American intelligence agencies even could not assess the capability of Afghan National Army. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction 2016 report noted massive corruption and ‘ghost soldiers’ in Afghan army.

Back to the question: Does the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan represent the end of the American era? It can certainly be said that the international image of the United States has been damaged. The U.S. retreat from Afghanistan represents part of a larger inward turn, or the U.S. may soon reassert itself somewhere else to show the world that it still has muscle. Right now, it feels as if the American era isn’t quite over, but it isn’t what it once was, either.

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Early Elections in Canada: Will the Fourth Wave Get in the Way?

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On August 15, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal Party, announced an early parliamentary election and scheduled it for September 20, 2021. Canadian legislation allows the federal government to be in power up to 5 years, so normally, the elections should have been held in 2023. However, the government has the right to call early elections at any time. This year, there will be 36 days for the pre-election campaigns.

At the centre of the Liberals’ election campaign is the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic in Canada and the economic recovery. The coronavirus has also become a motivator for early elections. In his statement, Justin Trudeau emphasised that “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better. Canadians deserve their say, and that’s exactly what we are going to give them.” Thus, the main declared goal of the Liberals is to get a vote of confidence from the public for the continuation of the measures taken by the government.

The goal, which the prime minister did not voice, is the desire of the Liberal Party to win an absolute majority in the Parliament. In the 2019 elections, the Liberals won 157 seats, which allowed them to form a minority government, which is forced to seek the support of opposition parties when making decisions.

The somewhat risky move of the Liberals can be explained. The Liberals decided to take advantage of the high ratings of the ruling party and the prime minister at the moment, associated with a fairly successful anti-COVID policy, hoping that a high level of vaccination (according to official data, 71% of the Canadian population, who have no contraindications, are fully vaccinated and the emerging post-pandemic economic recovery will help it win a parliamentary majority.

Opinion polls show that the majority of Canadians approve Trudeau’s strategy to overcome the coronavirus pandemic. Between the 2019 elections and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trudeau’s government was unpopular, with ratings below 30%. Unlike Donald Trump, Trudeau’s approval rating soared after the outbreak of the pandemic to 55%. During the election campaign, the rating of the Liberal Party decreased and was 31.6% on September 16, which reduces the chances of a landslide victory.

Trudeau left unanswered the question of whether he’d resign if his party fails to win an absolute majority in the elections.

Leaders of opposition parties—the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party—criticised Trudeau’s decision to call early elections, considering the decision inappropriate for the timing and situation with regard to the risk of the fourth wave of the coronavirus epidemic. They stressed that the government’s primary task should be taking measures to combat the pandemic and restore the economy, rather than trying to hold onto power.

The on-going pandemic will change the electoral process. In the event of a fourth wave, priority will be given to postal voting. Liberal analysts are concerned that the registration process to submit ballots by mail could stop their supporters from voting, thereby undermining Trudeau’s drive to reclaim a majority government. However, postal voting is the least popular among voters of the Conservative Party, and slightly more popular among voters of the Liberal and New Democratic parties. The timeframe for vote-counting will be increased. While ballots are usually counted on the morning after election day, it can take up to five days for postal voting.

One of the key and most attractive campaign messages of the Liberal Party is the reduction of the average cost of childcare services. Liberals have promised to resolve this issue for many years, but no active action has been taken. Justin Trudeau noted that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of this issue.

As in the 2019 elections, the Liberal Party’s key rival will be the Conservative Party, led by new leader Erin O’Toole. The Conservative Party’s rating a five days before the election was 31.3%. Conservatives suggest a different approach to childcare—providing a refundable child tax subsidy that covers up to 75% of the cost of kindergarten for low-income families. Trudeau has been harshly criticised by the Conservatives in connection with the scale of spending under his leadership, especially during the pandemic, and because of billion-dollar promises. In general, the race will not be easy for the conservative O’Toole. This is the first time he is running for the post of prime minister, in contrast to Justin Trudeau. Moreover, the Conservative Party of Canada is split from within, and the candidate is faced with the task of consolidating the party. The Conservative will have to argue against the billion-dollar promises which were made by the ruling Liberals before the elections.

The leaders of the other parties have chances to increase their seats in Parliament compared to the results of the 2019 elections, but they can hardly expect to receive the necessary number of votes to form a government. At the same time, the personal popularity of Jagmeet Singh, the candidate from the New Democratic Party, is growing, especially among young people. The level of his popularity at the end of August was 19.8%. Singh intends to do everything possible to steal progressive voters from the Liberal Party and prevent the formation of a Liberal-majority government. Singh will emphasise the significant role of the NDP under the minority government in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlight that it was the New Democratic Party that was able to influence government decisions and measures to support the population during the pandemic.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, whose popularity level was 6.6%, intends to increase the Bloc’s presence in Parliament and prevent the loss of votes in the province of Quebec in favour of the Liberal Party. According to him, it is fundamentally important to protect the French language and the ideas of secularism. The Bloc Québécois is also not interested in the formation of a majority government by the Liberals.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul is in a difficult position due to internal party battles. Moreover, her rating is low: 3.5%. Higher party officials have even tried to pass a no-confidence vote against her. Annamie Paul’s goal is, in principle, to get a seat in Parliament in order to be able to take part in voting on important political issues. The Greens are focused on climate change problems, the principles of social justice, assistance to the most needy segments of the population, and the fight against various types of discrimination.

Traditionally, foreign policy remains a peripheral topic of the election campaign in Canada. This year, the focus will be on combating the COVID-19 epidemic, developing the social sphere, and economic recovery, which will push foreign policy issues aside even further.

The outcome of the elections will not have a significant impact on Russian-Canadian relations. An all-party anti-Russian consensus has developed in Canada; none of the parties have expressed any intention of developing a dialogue with Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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