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Looking Back at the Trump Presidency: An Informed Retrospective

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 “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, as to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet, seen too often, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”-Alexander Pope, Essay on Man

Background to the Trump horror: America’s heritage of anti-reason

Even in retrospect, the Trump presidency remains redolent with wrongdoing and defilement.  Though thousands of needless American deaths represent the most conspicuous cost of this sordid presidency, the US also suffered coinciding geopolitical losses in North Korea, China, India, Russia, Iran and elsewhere. These preventable deaths and geopolitical losses were generally predictable, the expected result of a society that assiduously discourages independent citizen thought. In essence, long before the pandemic of Covid19, there already existed a corrosive American “plague” of doctrinal anti-reason.

               There is more. During the acrimonious Trump Era, anti-intellectual sentiments were routinely elevated to the status of ideology. Worse, these barbarous sentiments were no longer expressed sotto voce, cautiously, in the Congress or in the White House. Instead, they became the celebrated underpinnings of unprecedented Constitutional crises and  variously retrograde declarations of “America First.”[1]

               “Intellect rots the brain,” shrieked Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” yelled Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for the presidency. Inter alia, what these grim assertions had in common was an ultimately lethal disdain for science and education. Derivatively, they pointed to a continuously deformed and twisted national ideal, one that called for mindless public obeisance to democratic Constitutional governance. As US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley recently pointed out, the January 6 2021 insurrection was nothing less than Donald J. Trump’s “Reichstag moment.”[2]

               That was really saying a great deal.

               In world politics, both domestically and internationally, Trump Era intellectual decline was not unique. Americans have seen indigenously spawned monsters before. But in the Trump years, we the people witnessed a virulent rebirth of catastrophic political bewitchments. Most ominously, no matter how compelling and expansive the evidence of Trump’s multiple derelictions became, millions of his dedicated adherents remained steadfastly loyal to his manipulations, to unreason. This assessment remains true even now, even after the crude and murderous coup attempt at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

               Lest we forget, the event represented an American president’s engineered insurrection against his own government. “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”

Trump-world derelictions go much deeper than simple day-to-day infringements. Briefly, we are all still afflicted and/or affected. Even today, faith, not facts, is what matter most to dedicated cadres of robotic Trump adherents. For them, and without any apologies to Jeffersonian democracy (because these adherents generally know nothing of US history), the perilous phrase “I believe” is de rigeur. For such viscerally compliant persons, the dialectically reciprocal phrase “I think” remains unknown or reassuringly subordinate.

               For the self-parodying Trump faithful caught up in empty or invented antimonies, the Cartesian “cogito” was too taxing. For this “herd” (Nietzsche); “crowd” (Kierkegaard); or “mass” (Jung) – these useful terms are easily inter-changeable here – an imperative to think meaningfully might just as well never have been raised.[3] The basic reason behind such willful abandonment of “mind” is captured with clarity by 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “Reason  is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no intellectual argument and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition….”

               “The Absurd.” Jaspers is still well worth reading. In this regard, the enticingly simplifying gibberish of QAnon and QAnon-type “explanations” should come immediately to mind. Could any contemporary “ideology” be more patently preposterous? The question is moot, of course, because this ideology literally worships The Absurd. Could anything prove more humiliating for Americans who still like to insistently presume themselves “great again?”[4]

A legacy undermined: Trump’s repudiation of America’s intellectual origins

Some things have changed. Back in the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, chief architect of the Declaration of Independence and future American president, exclaimed with unhesitating candor: “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Later, US President Donald Trump, who learned only “in his own flesh” (a clarifying phrase offered by Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Revolt of the Masses, 1930) expressed an oath of support for just such an insufferable tyranny. Early in his steeply-corrupted presidency, Trump returned from the Singapore summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un declaring that any calculable risks of a bilateral nuclear war had just then been removed.[5] This argument, vacant prima facie, rested upon the inane observation that he and Kim had “fallen in love.” Subsequently, Trump offered grievously inexpert daily assessments of assorted drug efficacies against the Corona virus. At the same time, he responded to authoritative science-based prescriptions with capricious doubt or absurdly brazen indifference.

For the United States, these incoherent stream-of-consciousness excursions into gibberish were more than merely dissembling. At a time of palpable biological “plague,” these presidential declensions were sorely tangible and immediately life-threatening. Jurisprudentially, they came perilously close to becoming genocide-like crimes.[6]

               A key observation dawns. How pitifully inadequate were America’s political processes and institutions in dealing with this president’s rancorous instincts.  For a time, almost an entire country displayed near-infinite forbearance for Trump’s hugely nonsensical commentaries. The resultant withering of an already-declining nation’s heart and mind pointed to once-unimaginable existential threats.

They pointed directly and unambiguously.

While various mega-death scenarios of relentless disease pandemic expressed the most far reaching and credible dangers, the more “normal” portents of nuclear war and terrorism did not miraculously disappear. In certain worst case narratives that could still be fathomed, war, terror and pandemic would occur more-or-less simultaneously, and with harshly interactive results that were not simply “intersectional” but also multi-layered and synergistic.

               There is more. In any scenario of overwhelmingly destructive synergy, the whole of a potential catastrophe would necessarily be greater than the sum of its parts. In this aptly sobering connection, Americans may usefully recall Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s seemingly obvious but still insightful observation: “The worst does sometimes happen.”

               Are the stubbornly dedicated minions of Trump sycophants mainly scoundrels or fools? And which answer would be more ominous for the United States? About this particular question, Jose Ortega y’Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) cites generically to the writer Anatole France: “There is no way of dislodging the fool from his folly…. The fool is a fool for life…he is much worse than the knave. The knave (scoundrel) does take a rest sometimes; the fool never.”

               At best, and let us now be generous in spirit, there was nothing intentionally murderous or genocidal about Donald Trump’s policies, whether foreign or domestic. Nonetheless, plainly detectable in his crude governance was a far-reaching indifference to basic human rights and welfare. Spawned by an all-too evident absence of empathy or compassion, this American president gave new and portentous meaning to the common notion that pain is incommunicable. “All men have my blood and I have all men’s,” wrote American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,”[7] but such cosmopolitan sentiment was alien and incomprehensible to Donald J. Trump.

 As with any challenging matters of intellectual judgment, this former president’s near-total lack of empathic feelings revealed frightful levels of personal emptiness. More precisely, they revealed an American leader of breathtaking vapidity, one who quite consciously constructed his venal presidency upon the stupefying sovereignty of unqualified persons. This was the literal opposite of Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated democratic vision.

Citizen obligations to truth

               Where do Americans go from this once foreseeable and once preventable point in national political life? Whatever else we might conclude, Donald J. Trump was no psychiatric enigma. Rather, he displayed numerous and incontrovertible clinical derangements from the start. But rather than continue to approach these liabilities as if they were specifically important in their singularity, we Americans must understand that there can never exist a feasible political “fix” for concatenations of monstrous presidential behavior.

               No doubt, Trump and his diehard supporters still believe that he did what he did with purity of heart. Similarly felt convictions were readily detectable among the 1930s managers of German propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Should we therefore “give a pass” to the Third Reich’s Nazi Party? In reply, if anyone wants to more fully understand the Trump phenomenon, it would be best to listen to his speeches and ideas in the “original German.”

Irony can be instructive. Still, there is more. In America today there is still too much “noise.” Among those many citizens who so strenuously loathe all refined intellect and ascertainable truth, this is largely the undimmed background noise of an insidious political impresario.[8]

Trump’s continuously bewitched proselytes make their hideous sounds with open enthusiasm. They do this because it allows them to see themselves as privileged members of a very worthy “crowd.” Reciprocally and consistently, their out-of-power but still-disjointed leader makes complementary dissembling noises.  He has, after all, been selected “for life” to direct this hideous “crowd.”

Have any of these proselytes read the United States Constitution? Have any ever heard about US common law and Blackstone’s Commentaries? The US legal system begins with Blackstone. Did Trump’s senior Justice Department officials even know that much?

The crowd is “untruth” wrote 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard; no crowd could be more untrue than the one comprised of continuously retrograde Trump followers. Anticipating what has now come to pass in the United States, nineteenth century American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (Life Without Principle) lamented prophetically: “…we do not worship truth, but reflections of truth; because we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce …which are means, not ends.” From Plato to Emerson, Americans have readily available templates for a more thoughtful and decent society, but it is first up to them to seize such templates. Significantly, with any such essential “seizure,” political action would still be reflective, secondary and epiphenomenal.

True change will have to be intrapersonal.

               In July 1776, over one short Philadelphia weekend of dreadful heat and no modern conveniences, a then-future American president composed more infinitely valuable prose than former president Donald J. Trump (with all modern conveniences at his disposal) could produce in several contiguous lifetimes. Naturally, Thomas Jefferson did not arrive at his presidency with a well-honed expertise in “branding,” but with a dedication to Reason, to the antecedent understanding that an American brand” should be based upon authentic qualities of accomplishment. Promisingly, such traits would be inherently “true,” both honorable and valuable.

               “One must never seek the higher man,” warns philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra, “at the marketplace.” Years ago, America still stood for something more than mastering raw commerce. Years ago, our national debates did not yet center on mass killing and a presumed right to arm citizens with military-style assault weapons. It may well be that this country has never been ready to welcome Plato’s “Philosopher King,”[9] but there were at least certain times in our national past that philosophical debates sounded more like a university seminar than a self-defense course on tactical weapons.

                We Americans generally remember our earlier presidents not for their transient commercial successes in the frenetic marketplace of tangible goods – products to be bought and sold – but for their auspicious presence in a marketplace of ideas. For these still-enviable presidents, it was always more important to build a leadership legacy upon wisdom and learning than on accumulated symbols of personal wealth. Can anyone imagine Abraham Lincoln or even Dwight D. Eisenhower residing at faux habitats like Mar a Lago?

Microcosm, macrocosm and “soul”: an indissoluble American connection

                The full horror of the Trump presidency – a horror still energetically accepted by millions – began with the intellectually unambitious American citizen, with the self-flawed “microcosm.” Our American electorate, the macrocosm, can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its separate members. As Friedrich Nietzsche could have predicted from his vital reasoning in Zarathustra, the whole of the American polity is potentially more despoiled than the mere aggregate sum of its “parts.”

                Ultimately, for better or for worse, every democracy must come to represent the sum total of its constituent “souls,” that is, a composite of those hopeful citizens who still seek some sort or other of personal “redemption.”[10] In our deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and to “get ahead” –   inhabit a vast and ever-growing wasteland of lost human opportunity. Within this desiccated society of vulgar and abysmal entertainments, of political leaders with nary a scintilla of courage or personal integrity, millions of “hollow” men and women remain chained to exhausting cycles of meaningless work.

               There are manifold ironies here. While generally unrecognized, such de facto American servitude is sometimes felt by the very rich as well as by the very poor. This paradoxical “artifact” of American privilege is based upon entire lifetimes spent in grimly sterile forms of endlessly unsatisfying accumulation. To be sure, we are essentially taught to revere billionaires more than thinkers, but it has now proven to be an incomparably murderous instruction.

                Now, America’s most spirited national debates continue to be about guns and killing, not about history, literature, music, art, philosophy, or beauty.[11] Within this vast and predatory nether world, huge segments of cheerless populations drown themselves in vast oceans of alcohol and drugs. Whether incrementally or suddenly, this intractable submersion is already deep enough to swallow up entire centuries of national achievement and entire millennia of a once-sacred poetry. Today, the number of American suicides or self-murders is virtually too high to actually calculate.

               At its core, America’s “opiate addiction problem” is not about drugsRather, prima facie, it is the evident symptom of rampant individual unhappiness and intractable social despair. A tangible residue of this refractory problem can be found scattered as “medical” litter on America’s beaches and playgrounds. In the end, this toxic litter instructs as a squalid metaphor of a much larger social disintegration. In short, this graphic metaphor references a society that during the trump years became even more complicit in its own continuous demise.

True meanings of “freedom”

                Let us be candid. Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless “crowd” or “herd” or “mass.”  Stubbornly disclaiming any hints of an interior life, we proceed tentatively and in almost every palpable sphere at the lowest common denominator. When it is expressed in more annoyingly recognizable terms, our vaunted American “freedom” is becoming contrivance. Nothing more.[12]

                A simplifying American intellectual context offers a regrettable but ubiquitous “solvent.” This caustic substance dissolves almost everything of analytic consequence. In formal education, the once revered Western Canon of literature and art has already been replaced by more generalized emphases on acquisition and “business.” Apart from their pervasive drunkenness and often tasteless entertainments, once-sacred spaces of American higher education have been transformed into a rusting pipeline, a perpetual conduit to unsatisfying jobs and sterile vocations.[13]

               Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the still-unraveling post-Trump Era – the swaying of the American ship will become increasingly violent. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we Americans will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the works of long forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

               In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This American president[14] had answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the threatening and synthetic “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, as Wilson already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty demise of broken machinery, more hideous even than the unstoppable biological decompositions of each individual person.

                In all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists also recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual”soul” is most important. There can be a “better”American soul,[15] and also an improved American politics,but not until we are first able to acknowledge a more prior obligation. This is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the staggering barriers of a Kierkegaardian “crowd” culture, to embrace once again the liberating imperatives of Emersonian “high thinking.” But there can be no foreseeable end to crowd-induced political surrenders until individuals no longer feel the persistent need to make of themselves a quantité négligeable.

Final citizen obligations: imperatives of serious thought

               In the end, Donald Trump’s defiling presidency was “merely” the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper American “pathology.” Today, the underlying American disease remains a far-reaching national unwillingness to think seriously or independently. Ultimately, if it is left suitably unchallenged, such reluctance could transform us into something far worse than anything ever imagined; that is, into the finely-lacquered corpse of a once-ascendant American Civilization.

               There are several urgent lessons to be learned. For Americans, the most ruinous evasion of all has been to seek comfort and succor in primordial forms of political attachment, to escape moral judgment as private citizens. This search won’t work. “In eternity,” reminds Soren Kierkegaard, “each shall render account as an individual.[16]At least, we are properly warned, there will be this residual sort of “last judgment.”

               Looking back, “horror” is the only correct term of judgment for an American presidency that shamelessly encouraged egregious crimes against the United States and against other nations.[17] Even without mens rea or what the jurists would call “criminal intent,” Trump’s visible unconcern for science-based judgments on disease, law[18] and war almost yielded the death of millions. Inter alia, recalling Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, such presidential unconcern exhibited a uniquely hideous species of “vice,” a species so distressing that it still defies any “measured,” “balanced” or “objective” forms of description.

               Looking ahead, to prevent another “monster       of so frightful mien,” Americans must finally embrace the faith of Reason, not Trump-like anti-Reason or “reason of unreason.”[19] Following pertinent insights of 20th century Spanish philosopher Ortega y’Gasset Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas, 1930), America’s “redemption” from egregious governance will never be discoverable in politics.[20] Instead, it will require a nation to acknowledge that intellectual efforts are demanding but indispensable. Though the Trump “masses” sought to rule American society without any actual capacity to do so, failure to fully reject such presumptuousness could only bring forth another grievous horror. All citizens are certainly entitled to their opinions, but these opinions ought not expect affirmations of correctness based upon assorted wishes and lies. Most pernicious of all would be Trump-style presidential opinions once again based upon appeals to violence, inherently fallacious opinions known to logicians as argumentum ad baculum. Of all such illegitimate opinions, Ortega y’Gasset concludes: “They are in effect nothing more than appetites in words….”

               Following the Trump horror, America has had enough of such verbal “appetites.” They are starkly predatory and potentially omnivorous. We can do much better.

[1] Donald Trump’s philosophy of belligerent nationalism – codified as “America First” –  willfully undermined certain basic protective principles of international law. This law, an integral part of the coordinating system of separately sovereign states in world politics, assumes a reciprocally common obligation of all states to supply continuous benefits to one another. The assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, one that is never subject to legitimate question or policy reversal. It can be discovered early on in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis; Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[2] The US general was referring to Adolph Hitler’s burning of the German parliament in February 1933, and the Nazis blaming the political left (i.e., the Communists). Said Donald Trump on August 11, 2021 about the police shooting of Capitol insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt on January 6 2021: “I spoke to the wonderful mother and devoted husband of Ashli Babbitt, who was murdered at the hands of someone who should never have pulled the trigger of his gun. We know who he is. If that happened to the ‘other side,’ there would be riots all over America and yet, there are far more people represented by Ashli, who truly loved America, than there are on the other side. The Radical Left haters cannot be allowed to get away with this. There must be justice!” This represents a verified statement of the former American president about an individual who knowingly took part in a violent coup d’état at the US Capitol early in 2021.

[3] Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” The exact reference here is to “universal doubt” famously encouraged by René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637).

[4] I use the word “themselves” here with deliberateness. This is because the ultimate value to Trump followers of an America that is “great again” is plainly the reflective or derivative transmittal of “greatness” to “themselves.”

[5] On probable consequences of nuclear war fighting by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA; Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed., Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[6] Professor Beres is the author of several major books and many law journal articles on genocide-like crimes. See, for example, Louis René Beres, “Genocide and Genocide-Like Crimes,” in M. Cherif Bassiouni., ed., International Criminal Law: Crimes (New York, Transnational Publishers, 1986), pp. 271-279. See also: Louis René Beres, file:///C:/Users/lberes/AppData/Local/Temp/Genocide%20State%20and%20Self.pdf;; Louis René Beres,  Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (1984); and Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of US Foreign Policy (1987).

[7] We may think also of the corresponding Talmudic observation: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”

[8] In a wholly negative assessment, twentieth century German writer Thomas Mann would have called Trump a “magician.” See for example, his classic novella on the rise of Nazism, “Mario and the Magician.”  See also: Karl Jaspers: “The masses have followed the magicians again and again…Socrates and Plato were the first to take up the struggle against them in clear awareness of what was at stake.” (Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952).

[9] See by this writer at Oxford University Press: Louis René Beres,

[10] I draw this term from Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1957).

[11] Regarding aesthetics, see by this author, Louis René Beres, at Oxford University Press:

[12] This problem antedates Trump. See, for example, the classic essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Life Without Principle (1863).

[13] See, by this writer, at The Daily Princetonian: Louis René Beres,

[14] As a graduate Princetonian himself, the author recognizes that this former Princeton University president was recently “demoted” of previous stature. Though such reputational derogation was likely well-founded, this does not mean ipso facto that Wilson (a former Princeton professor of political science) had absolutely nothing of genuine intellectual value to share with others. He was a serious and capable scholar who understood the relentless obligations of science and academic learning.

[15] However ironic, Sigmund Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. He most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and its seemingly corollary commitment to disturbingly crude forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very plainly “lacking in soul.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.)

[16] The Kierkegaardian concept of “crowd” is roughly analogous to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd,” psychologist Car G. Jung’s “mass,” or Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[17] Regarding US legal obligations toward other nations, see for example, by Louis René Beres:; and

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

[19] This expression is drawn from Cervantes, Don Quixote.

[20] It was American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote the following important words in Life Without Principle: “America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought, but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economic and moral tyrant.  Now that the res-publica has been settled, it is time to look after the res-private, the private state….” With this 19th century assertion, the great American Transcendentalist thinker managed to capture the core problem of present-day American life.

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

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Air Balloon and U.S.-China Relations



Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/US Navy

The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.

The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.

Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.

Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.

The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.

Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.

The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.

The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.

Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.

The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.

If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.

China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.

The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.

Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.

From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.

The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.

China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.

Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.

The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.

The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.

The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.

There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.

In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.

The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.

The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.

Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.

From our partner RIAC

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Can Lula walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing?

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As Brazil’s New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) prepares to visit China later this month, maintaining neutrality would be difficult as the winds of change enwrap  Beijing.

Brazil is Back

President Lula’s coming to power has marked a decisive shift in Brazilian foreign policy. With the Pink Tide resurging in South America, the new President has clearly spelled out his foreign policy aims: restoring Brazil’s neutrality and importance in international affairs at par with both the West and East after nearly 4 years of impasse under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who had adopted a Sinophobic, pro-Trump foreign policy.

Brasilia’s 39th President, who previously presided over the office between 2003-2010, will have a lot to talk about as he visits his nation’s largest trading partner that imported $89.4 billion in 2022 mostly in soy and iron ore which added a surplus of $28.7 billion to Brazil’s coffers. Boosting the economic partnership with China will be a priority for Lula, who intends to integrate South America into a closely held economic unit. Another important item on the agenda includes the appointment of former President Dilma Rousseff as the new BRICS Bank president.

Lula and the West

Lula had rattled swords with Washington on several occasions during his previous tenure such as alleging the United States for reducing South America to its “backyard” by intervening in its internal politics as well as by opposing the Iraq War. Even though he recognises the importance of maintaining good relations with the superpower up North; several of Lula’s moves including sending a delegation to Maduro-led Venezuela, refusing to sign a UN Human Rights resolution condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua, allowing Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro, maintaining an ambiguous approach on the Russia-Ukraine War and refusing to send arms to Kyiv, dubbing the ‘Balloongate’ incident a bilateral issue  between the US and China and defining  the Taiwan issue as Beijing’s internal matter, have deeply irked the West.

While tensions remain, Lula’s focus on combating climate change and call for saving the Amazon have earned a thumbs up from the Biden administration as the former’s election to power comes as a breath of fresh air after his staunch “Trump of the Tropics”  predecessor adopted a not-so-friendly approach towards Biden’s entry in the White House. Lula understands Washington’s support is required and hence it was a top spot on his foreign visits list. Lula and Biden held talks amidst a cordial ambience and vowed to reboot bilateral ties by promising to protect democracy and combating climate change.

Winds of Change in Beijing

However, winds of change in the East have dispersed the clouds of ambiguity and China now stands more vocal, more critical and more confident in dealing with the United States.

The recent session of the National People’s Congress, which won Xi Jinping a never-seen-before third term as the President, saw him voicing his criticism against “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose ” serious challenges to its development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压,给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”). Sino-US relations have been in the trough since President Trump’s tenure with the recent point of clash being the ‘Balloon incident’ which made Anthony Blinken call off his visit to Beijing.

Xi recently unveiled his new 24 Character Foreign Policy which, Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”. The characters “沉着冷静;保持定力;稳中求进;积极作为;团结一致;敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” are set to replace Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy  focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile.

China’s confidence is further boosted by its successful attempt to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been staunch rivals for the past many years. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has garnered accolades from nations across the region and is all set to play a greater international role by not just pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side but also through actively putting forth its plans to end wars with Xi all set to pay Putin a visit over the Russia-Ukraine War before he meets Lula at Beijing. Lula too eagerly anticipates what Beijing has to say as he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “it is time for China to get its hands dirty”.

Neutrality no more?

If the state of Sino-US relations does not improve, things would get hard for many leaders like Lula who seek to balance between the two superpowers. Lula knows  neutrality is his best bet but money matters– as his former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim noted “Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” Isolating  China, with which Brazil has had a long strategic partnership since the 1990s, at the expense of moving closer to the US might come hard on the purse and exacerbate the many economic challenges he faces. Nor can Washington be isolated– not just because of the economic necessities but also in the face of challenges from far-right forces that both Lula and Biden face.

Lula realises the risks of placing all his eggs in one basket but would he be left with the choice to divide them equally into both? The issue is bound to get stickier but if he successfully manages to escape the quagmire of the unfolding great power rivalry, Lula will set a precedent for not just South America but nations across the globe. The only viable solution would be to strengthen regional alliances in Latin America and boost partnerships with  developing nations like India while using the collective strength to push Beijing and Washington to come together.

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The Malvinas feud as a Global Constant

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As an event gets bigger, it’s more likely that interesting things will happen behind the scenes, that is, in unplanned activities.

The seventh meeting of G20 foreign ministers in India in 2023 confirms this. Bilateral meetings between Qing-Jaishankar, the Blinken-Lavrov dispute, and the meeting between Santiago Cafiero and James Cleverly, during which the former notified the latter of the end of the Foradori-Duncan agreement.

On March 2, 2023, by rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement, the Argentine government de facto reopened one of the most important territorial disputes in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps the most important, and did so in the most theatrical way possible: at the G20, the main North-South dialogue platform.

What was the purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement?

The idea behind the agreement was for the Argentine government to renounce its claims and any serious discussion regarding the territorial dispute over the sovereignty of the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands and the adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. Instead, the Argentine government would adopt a position of claiming “light sovereignty” in order to obtain benefits, mainly economic ones, through joint exploitation of the natural resources of the islands and adjacent territories in the South Atlantic with the United Kingdom (UK), as well as through British investments in the country.

In practice, this agreement implied the Argentine government’s resignation to discuss sovereign rights over the Falkland Islands and their adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. It can be inferred that this was a disguised surrender clause by the government of Mauricio Macri to continue with Argentina’s sovereign claim over the Malvinas Islands.

The purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement was in line with the foreign policy stance of the Macri administration (2015-2019), which had a marked pro-Western (and more Atlanticist) position than previous governments (Kirchnerism 2003-2015).

This geopolitical code (if we can speak of the existence of a “Macrista geopolitical code” coming from the geopolitical code of the traditional Argentine ruling class) consisted of a series of agreements (tacit and official) of Argentine resignation and subordination to traditional Western powers (of which the Foradori-Duncan agreement was one of its greatest exponents) which aimed –in theory– to obtain greater economic benefits and a renewal of the country’s public image in the supposed “international community.”

These types of foreign policy positions would be a constant of the Macri government. Even the Argentine scholar Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has conceptualized such a stance as “Concessive Peripheral Unilateralism” to define the foreign policy of the Macri government [1].

In practice, these ideas and plans, were shown to be totally ineffective and unproductive. Argentina practically did not receive economic benefits from such positions, nor did its public image have a significant and positive international projection. And the Foradori-Duncan agreement is the most scandalous example of this reality.

Why did the Argentine government of Alberto Fernández decide to end such an agreement?

The first explanation is the internal conformation and political identity of the government of Alberto Fernández, which logically demanded a change in the previous government’s (Macri) stance on the Malvinas agreements, his predecessor and opponent. But this inference raises another question: Why were such measures not taken before? The answers to this question are only conjectures.

Since the end of the Malvinas War (1982) until today, except for the years of the Menem governments (1989-1999), Argentina’s bilateral relationship with Great Britain has always been marked by a strong “Malvinense” [2] component on the agenda of their interaction, which has often led to high-pitched disputes between both parties. The “agenda” of the Malvinas cause was a constant trend of the Kirchnerist governments (2003-2015), such claims were made, denouncing British illegal occupation of the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions in various international forums, bilateral meetings, and multilateral forums.

But as mentioned earlier, the Macri government would have a diametrically opposed position to its Kirchnerist predecessors regarding the Malvinas question. However, the reality of the country and its foreign policy changed again when Argentina “presented” a new government in 2019, with Alberto Fernández as the head of the presidency.

The government of A. Fernández has an eclectic political character [3], as a result of a coalition between several political sectors, so the foreign policy of his government also reflects the heterogeneous internal conformation of the government coalition sectors.

In such conformation, sectors such as Kirchnerism, as well as more orthodox Peronist sectors, are present, both of which have traditionally had a more                       “Post-Western” stance, aiming to “rewrite the Argentine geopolitical code” and the vectors of Argentine foreign policy, projecting an alternative foreign policy, in first place towards their own region: South America, Ibero-America, the Caribbean, and in more modern times, especially towards the Global South, the BRICS, and Asia. In such guidelines, the action of rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement was logical. But logic also makes us wonder, why were such measures not taken before? Such questions enter the realm of speculation.

Another analysis could be given in an electoral key reading, this year 2023, presidential elections will be held in Argentina, and Alberto Fernández has expressed on several occasions through words and gestures [4], that he is willing and interested in being re-elected as the head of the Argentine executive branch.

Facing a public image tarnished by the covid-19 pandemic, and mainly a negative macroeconomic situation, the electoral nature of this foreign policy measure cannot be ruled out: the Malvinas cause is a cause that mobilizes emotions in Argentine society and remains a deep wound to national pride, and is a valid rhetorical and practical tool to antagonize the Argentine opposition (liberals and conservatives), which has never had (and perhaps never will have) a firm geopolitical stance nor interest in the Malvinas question.

Also, the reading of tensions within the coalition of the current Argentine government can’t be ruled out, in this last aspect, this measure could be read as a gesture of balance from the “Albertismo” towards Kirchnerism, a sector of the government in which many leaders believe that the sector identified with the president has geopolitically leaned too much towards Washington and the West since the 2022 debt agreement with the IMF and the war in Ukraine.

Argentina informed the British of its decision during the G20 foreign ministers’ summit, which was dominated by the BRICS. Is it a coincidence that such a measure was taken at one of the most representative events of the Global South?

it clearly cannot be considered a coincidence.

The symbolic weight of such an action, in such a context, must be clearly considered. The G20 has a dual character as the main forum in which traditional (Western) powers dialogue but also reflects their tensions and antagonisms with emerging powers and peoples, including those of the so-called Global South.

With tensions between former metropolis countries and former colonies that make up the G20, and which are now emerging in material capabilities, a post-colonial and decolonial reading cannot be ruled out, and therefore a strong message from Argentina to the world’s emerging powers and the Global South.

Did China have any influence on the finalization of the pact?

No, there is no such “Chinese hand” that has driven such a measure by the Argentine government. These are paranoid arguments with a stubborn anti-Chinese bias that also ignores Argentina’s own reality. To put it plainly, if we use common sense, the decision was not elaborated nor driven from Beijing.

As mentioned earlier, the issue of the Malvinas is a deeply rooted national cause in Argentine society, and a constant in the foreign policy of Kirchnerism, which today is part of the coalition that compose the current Argentine government, which with such measures such as revoking the Foradori-Duncan agreement seeks to                “retake the ownership of the Malvinas and South Atlantic issue in its agenda,” marking a clear differentiated stance from the current political opposition (Juntos por el Cambio) that made such a pact in the previous presidential term.

The decision was not elaborated nor driven by Beijing, and in any case, recent and clear positions of support for Argentina’s sovereign claim in the Malvinas Islands by powers such as China [5] and Russia [6] were considered within the decision-making process to take such measures. Therefore, the positions of Beijing and Moscow influenced, but did not condition or generate, Buenos Aires’ decision.

The future of the Malvinas Question

It’s very difficult to envision a future scenario for such a specific and complex issue, especially in the long term. But a prospective scenario can be envisioned in the short term, which is basically and probably that the situation will not change significantly under current conditions. Unless the world is altered by seismic events.

It’s highly unlikely that we will see a dialoguing UK government in the short and medium term that is willing to negotiate the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. And it is similarly unlikely to see a future Argentine government, especially if it has the characteristics of a Peronist, Kirchnerist, or progressive government, openly giving up its claims to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

Such a proposition would surely change if there were a liberal-oriented government in Argentina, such as Mauricio Macri’s.

The problem with the current Argentine government, as well as future ones, regarding the Malvinas dispute, is that the country does not have, and will not have in the short and medium term, the set of soft and hard capabilities (economic, diplomatic, military, ideological influence) to press and force the UK hard enough to revise its traditional stance on the occupation of the islands. At least until the current balance of power and the position of emerging powers, such as China, would consolidate even further in the world order.

But in any case, such changes and opportunities will depend on the international context and the agency of third parties, which are independent variables for the positions that future Argentine governments may take.

Most experts in international relations and geopolitics agree that the territorial dispute over the Falkland-Malvinas Islands between Britain and Argentina will not have an easy or predictable resolution in the short term.

Some experts point out that the strategic geographical position of the Malvinas Islands and the presence of significant natural resources in the area, such as fishing and hydrocarbons, make the dispute even more complicated.

Moreover, many experts believe that Britain’s position has been strengthened in recent years thanks to the exploitation of the area’s natural resources and the lack of a clear strategy on the part of Argentina to resolve the dispute.

A hypothetical Chinese presence in the region, through the southern Argentine city of Ushuaia, through the construction of a logistics hub, has added an intervening element that makes it even more complex to envision a prospective scenario [7].

However, some experts believe that the issue of the territorial dispute over the Falkland Islands, Argentina’s position is legitimate, which has won it great support and sympathy among peoples and emerging powers, most of them with a colonial past [8].


[1] Tokatlian, J. G. (2018, 2 de febrero). Relaciones con EEUU: ¿nueva etapa? (Relations with the US: a new phase?) Clarín.

[2] Porto, J. M. (26/03/2022). Despite diplomatic ups and downs, the Malvinas claim became a state policy. Telam.

[3] In its composition as a coalition, including important elements of what might be called “Centre-Right” sectors that have Western – especially Washington – affinities.

[4] Its relevant to remember that on 22 February Alberto Fernandez led a public act in situ celebrating 119 years of Argentine presence in Antarctica. “Alberto Fernández visits Antarctica“. Sputnik. (23/02/2023).

[5] Joint Statement between the Argentine Republic and the People’s Republic of China on Deepening the Argentina-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. (06/02/2023).

China’s support for the Malvinas deepens a relationship with many agreements. Telam. (03/07/2021).    

[6] United Russia leader Medvedev celebrates Argentina’s termination of Foradori-Duncan agreement. Sputnik. (2023, March 6).   

Putin defended Argentina’s sovereignty over Malvinas and took aim at Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher. Política Argentina. (2022, May 30).

[7] The details of the Ushuaia Logistics Hub to supply Antarctica. El Cronista. (24/12/2021).  

An Antarctic logistics hub: official plan opens the door to strategic partners. El Cronista. (11/10/2021).       

[8] The Group of 77+China gave strong backing to Argentina’s position on the Malvinas Islands question. Telam. (2022, November 12).

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