No American can criticize Arab states without first acknowledging that the United States has made a host of mistakes of its own in dealing with nations like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The fact remains, however, that the word "Arab" has come to be a synonym for disunity, dysfunctional, and self-destructive. Regardless of issuing of one ambitious "Arab" plan for new coalitions after another, the reality is failed internal leadership and development, pointless feuding between Arab states, and an inability to cooperate and coordinate when common action is most needed.
The most immediate example is the series of efforts by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to isolate, embargo, and boycott Qatar. Some 100 days have passed since they issued some 13 broad, categorical, and poorly defined demands that Qatar change its behavior. These demands may or may not have been reduced to six equally badly phrased and vague statements, but this is unclear. There have been some faltering steps towards negotiation, and President Trump (after helping to trigger the embargo) has made a serious effort at mediation. So far, however, the crisis continues, along with references to "mad dogs" in the Arab League, and new sets of mutual accusations.
The end result has done little more than revive the long history of self-destructive divisiveness among the Arab states. Once again, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bickering with Qatar. Egypt is putting repression and counterterrorism before stability and development. Bahrain is reviving its own tensions with Qatar while deepening its internal divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite. Qatar is turning to Iran, Oman, and Turkey. Oman is increasing ties to Iran, increasing its tensions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and—at least to some extent—quietly allowing support to Saleh and the Houthi in Yemen to flow through Oman.
There has been some progress. Qatar has quietly taken steps to restrict the flow of private money to extremist organizations, the key problem that U.S. had with its behavior—although it should be noted that the U.S. Treasury and intelligence community had long made many of the same complaints about Kuwait's tolerance of individuals and organizations that help fund extremism. Qatar has not publicly expressed any willingness to negotiate over Al Jazeera, its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its support for Hamas, but many Qataris privately seem willing to at least discuss the issues involved. Moreover, these are areas where a rigid unwillingness on the part of Qatar's neighbors to liberalize regional media, and talk to the more moderate elements in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, may well do more harm than good.
One of the core principles of geopolitical forecasting is the idea that political leaders have far less personal power than they are assumed to have. They live in a universe of constraints that not only limit what they can do but also shape their agendas and actions.
When leaders take office, they are faced with complex and competing interests. As a result, the distance between what they say they want to do, what they actually intend to do and what they ultimately do can be dramatic. This is doubly true in the United States, where the founders created a system of government designed to constrain the powers of the president through several institutions: a Congress divided into two houses, running by different rules and populated by representatives who answer to their own constituencies; a Supreme Court answerable to no one and itself divided into factions; and sovereign states that are frequently free to disregard the federal government. Combine that with a dangerous world and an economy out of everyone’s control, and the president can do relatively little. This is the way the world is, and the founders compounded its complexity.
President Donald Trump is now experiencing this complexity, but it’s hardly unique to him. As his presidency is at an interesting point, it is worth pausing and observing the constraints he’s up against and his response.
Approval Ratings Are Crucial
A showdown is approaching in the conflict between Poland and the European Commission over the rule of law. Dialogue with Warsaw started after the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s unlawful exchange of Constitutional Court judges in the autumn of 2015; the president refused to appoint judges elected by the former government, and PiS instead elevated their own. That dialogue did not change the government’s policy. Instead, Warsaw denies the Commission’s right to judge the government’s domestic moves, and continues to steer Poland’s illiberal turn.
In July, the government opened a new front with its reforms to the judiciary. To be sure, President Andrzej Duda suprisingly blocked two proposals that would have given Parliament and the executive considerable influence over the replacement and nomination of members of the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary. But a third proposal was adopted by Parliament and signed by the president. Among other things, the new law allows the minister of justice to freely dismiss any chief judge in the six months after the law’s passing. This is a severe impediment to judges’ independence. It was to no one’s surprise that the Commission started an official infringement procedure. But the time of the political outsourcing of the “Polish case” to the Commision seems to be over.
Europeanization and national interests
Germany‘s changing approach is most significant. For a long time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel believed it was best for Berlin and other capitals to stand aside in the spat between Warsaw and Brussels. Politicizing the conflict did not seem to serve the overarching interest of keeping the European Union united. Now the opposite view seems to be gaining momentum: that ignoring the persistent violation of EU standards presents a bigger threat than breaking the silence.
New Zealand has not had a change election since 2008 when John Key swept into power. His reliable successor, Bill English, is locked in a tight contest with Labour’s charismatic new leader Jacinda Ardern. Whichever one of them ends up Prime Minister after Saturday’s contest will occupy the apex of a different New Zealand political landscape.
A fourth straight term for the National Party would not resemble the previous three. The consistently popular Key had the luxury of setting up coalitions with small and unobtrusive parties. But if most of the polls are to be believed, this election is the closest in years. To be able to govern, National would probably need to ask Winston Peters’ New Zealand First to make up the numbers.
Peters is more of a pragmatist in Cabinet than he is on the campaign trail. But his ambition would still make coalition negotiations tedious. His presence would test English’s authority for however long their shaky coalition might last. And New Zealand First’s populism will make it harder for National to champion free trade and investment and to maintain a welcoming attitude to economic migrants to New Zealand.
Even more change will be afoot if Ardern leads Labour to the victory that seemed impossible just weeks ago. Her party’s natural instincts will be to look left for coalition partners. But quite how many seats will be there is unclear. The Greens, whose political stocks have dived thanks to some self-inflicted wounds, are unlikely to be sufficient. Labour could also turn to the Maori Party which currently has a deal with National.
Imam Musa al-Sadr is hardly known in the West today, but the 39-year anniversary of this clergyman’s mysterious disappearance remains a source of deep grief and resentment among his followers. Sadr’s message of peaceful coexistence among peoples of different faiths still resonates. One cannot help but wonder what the Middle East, and Iran in particular, would look like today if Sadr had lived?
Sadr was a religious and political moderate who opposed direct clerical involvement in government and was the favorite of the senior clerics in Qom and Najaf who feared their ruthlessly ambitious peer Ruhollah Khomeini, the eventual Supreme Leader. His disappearance remains one of the great “what ifs?” of the late twentieth century. Researchers now lean toward the conclusion that responsibility for the imam’s kidnapping lies with the Islamic revolutionaries, and not with the Shah’s secret police as once was believed. At the time of his disappearance, plans were underway to bring Sadr back to Iran from Lebanon to lead a moderate block against Khomeini and the fundamentalists. Sadr had even established a secret backchannel to the Imperial Court in Tehran, and he was on his way to a furtive meeting with the Shah’s intermediary when he vanished in Tripoli.
Iran and the region could be very different today had Sadr lived to challenge Khomeini. Khomeini’s followers adopted a policy of religious revolution, of Islam without borders, and a totalitarian empire ruled by a Supreme Leader. While Qom and Najaf’s old-line clerics who followed the “quietist” tradition of Shiite Islam rejected governmental involvement, acquiescing to injustice while patiently awaiting the Mahdi’s deliverance, Sadr preached a different path. He aimed to reconcile the Shia with secular government through an activism that empowered Shiites as loyal citizens.
Born in Iran to a high Shia family, young Sadr was dispatched by the Shah to southern Lebanon in 1959 to minister to the region's poor Shia community. Bold, energetic, and charismatic, the 31-year-old Sadr mobilized the Shia to have a voice in national affairs and established himself as a tireless proponent of social justice. By 1978, Sadr was well known and respected in Lebanon and counted moderate regional leaders such as King Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt among his friends. When unrest erupted in Iran in early 1978, Sadr’s mentors in Qom and Najaf naturally looked to him as a figure capable of drawing support away from their antagonist Khomeini. While he did not openly confront Khomeini, Sadr was appalled by Khomeini’s Wilayat al-Faqih, which called for the overthrow of the monarchy and its replacement with a theocratic dictatorship.
Emmanuel Macron's use of fainéant, the French word for "slacker," caused an uproar in France. But the real "slackers" are the commentators who scatter hashtags to the wind of social media and avoid any in-depth debate longer than 140 characters. The only controversy we should be focusing on is the substance of President Macron's speech in Athens, which marked a major break from France's perception of European construction.
His assessment is that the people's lack of trust in the European Union reflects a sovereignty crisis. We are living with the myth that decisions made in Brussels are the result of compromises made at the European Council, where each country supposedly continues to exert its prerogatives in an independent and reversible way.
This is an argument put forward by opponents of Brexit, like the think tank Chatham House, before the June 2015 referendum. Essentially, they said, the EU is just a sophisticated multilateral agreement that does not question the democratic process of its member states. It is no wonder that in a country so attached to its parliamentary tradition as the United Kingdom, voters did not fall for this fallacious argument.
With its powerful Court of Justice, capable of slapping fines on governments and overstepping their decisions through the qualified majority rule, the EU narrows the field of national sovereignty. The competition policy in fact condemns any economic voluntarism.
A recent series of militant attacks that forced the closure of three of Libya’s key oil fields represents the latest blow to the North African nation’s efforts to revive its energy sector while reigning in the chronic instability that has plagued the country since its 2011 revolution.
Over the course of two weeks in late August, the Rayayina Patrols Brigade (RPG) targeted oil fields and other facilities along a key pipeline corridor in western Libya, disrupting production at the Hamada el Hamra, El-Feel, and El Sharara oil fields by an estimated 360,000 bpd.
Though all three fields are scheduled to resume production this week following a negotiated settlement, the attacks underscore the challenges the Tripoli-based and internationally recognized Government of National Accord continues to face as it attempts to revamp production and stabilize the country amidst a fraught security environment.
Prior to the 2011 fall of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, oil production reached highs of around 1.6 million bpd and accounted for as much as 98 percent of government revenue. During the civil war following Gadhafi’s ouster, oil production plummeted, falling below 300,000 bpd at several points, and has since struggled to recover. With few other alternatives for revenue, a thriving energy sector represents both a form of legitimacy for the GNA while also ultimately underwriting any development programs aimed at constructing durable peace and stability.
As automation and artificial intelligence technologies improve, many people worry about the future of work. If millions of human workers no longer have jobs, the worriers ask, what will people do, how will they provide for themselves and their families, and what changes might occur (or be needed) in order for society to adjust?
Many economists say there is no need to worry. They point to how past major transformations in work tasks and labor markets – specifically the Industrial Revolution during the 18th and 19th centuries – did not lead to major social upheaval or widespread suffering. These economists say that when technology destroys jobs, people find other jobs. As one economist argued:
“Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. Neoclassical economists predicted that this would not happen, because people would find other jobs, albeit possibly after a long period of painful adjustment. By and large, that prediction has proven to be correct.”
They are definitely right about the long period of painful adjustment! The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution involved two major Communist revolutions, whose death toll approaches 100 million. The stabilizing influence of the modern social welfare state emerged only after World War II, nearly 200 years on from the 18th-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
Four years ago, my colleagues Tom Nichols and John Schindler warned that U.S. fecklessness in the Middle East was creating conditions where Russia would be able to emerge as the key player in regional security. In responding to critics of their original article, they penned a follow-up days later that laid out the Russian strategy: to present Moscow as a “viable alternative partner” for the states of the region. At the time, they were roundly criticized for their apparent pessimistic assessment that a collapsing “regional power” would be able to diminish the influence of the world’s sole remaining superpower in the Middle East or even that Moscow would have anything it could offer to compete with Washington’s largesse.
Yet events since then have validated their assessments. The Russian hand is visible everywhere in the Middle East. Moscow is presiding over the effort to tap down the Syrian civil war and establish the deconfliction zones between the various factions and their outside patrons. Russia has inserted itself into the volatile Kurdish issue—both with regards to any Kurdish zone in Syria vis-a-vis Turkey and the efforts to clarify a final status between Iraqi Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. Russia has played a major role in sustaining the Iran-Iraq-Syria “Shi’a Crescent” but also is involved in direct talks with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates on how to maintain a fragile balance of power in the region. Egypt and Israel both now have their own lines of communication with the Kremlin and see Vladimir Putin as a more reliable statesman who does what he says and follows through on his commitments. This assessment is also apparently shared by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seems prepared to forge a new strategic axis with Russia on energy, Eurasian security and the future alignment of the Middle East. Moscow has hosted meetings of the various Libyan factions, Palestinian political parties, Kurdish representatives and members of the Syrian opposition, and Middle Eastern leaders regularly make the journey to Moscow to confer with the Kremlin.
Russia, by all appearances, is “back.” The mistake, however, is to view these developments in light of the Cold War experience. While it would seem to go without saying, contemporary Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Kremlin is no longer interested in spreading a particular ideology nor does it seek to impose any sort of binary choice on countries in the region to “choose” between Moscow and Washington. This is because Russia is not interested in footing immense bills for security and economic assistance. Instead, the twenty-first century Russian approach is not to displace the United States, which continues to bankroll much of the costs of regional security, but instead to act as the “hedge bet” for the regimes of the region to balance against America’s preferences and to have options to escape America’s conditionality. The Kremlin offers itself as a more reliable mediator than Washington and proffers equipment and capabilities that Washington is reluctant to provide. In turn, this makes former Cold War adversaries in the region—especially Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel—more open to developing a new relationship with the Kremlin.
Russia has been able to reestablish its presence because every country in the region, after two decades of U.S. transformational efforts, is now more interested in stability. It is clear that Washington lacks the ability to follow-through on its grandiose promises, and in particular no U.S. presidential administration is now in a position to commit large amounts of U.S. personnel or resources. This has been evident in the manic search by the United States for nonexistent proxies—committed secular democrats who nonetheless are prepared to fight with the same fervor and sense of sacrifice as militant jihadis—to sustain U.S. efforts in the region. The only group that has come closest to fitting the bill have been the Kurds, but whose commitment wanes outside traditionally ethnically Kurdish regions, while creating new complications in the U.S. relationships with governments in Ankara and Baghdad.
When Americans look across the Atlantic at the German election, it is impossible to imagine that anyone other than Merkel could lead Europe’s most powerful economy. Elected in 2005, she has outlasted, by far, her principal transatlantic counterparts — she is on her fourth British and French, and sixth Italian, prime ministers and her third U.S. president. Dubbed the Leader of the Free World by ever more publications, Merkel has become the indispensable European.
Merkel does look poised to glide to victory later this month and secure a fourth term in office. Even if she succeeds, we would be mistaken to assume that German politics is static. Merkel’s dominance of Germany’s highest office masks a shifting political landscape. Germany enjoys a parliamentary, not a presidential, system and thus, while the chancellor of Germany matters, so does the coalition she leads.
For the last four years, Merkel has presided over a Grand Coalition of Germany’s two major parties — her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Today, those two parties control 80 percent of the seats in Parliament. Even if the Grand Coalition were to continue — and other coalitions may well emerge — there is no public opinion survey that even hints such a coalition would control a majority of that magnitude. Why? Because the German political landscape is changing in significant ways. We Americans would do well to take note.
Germany looks set to have more parties in its Parliament than ever in the postwar era. To achieve representation in Parliament, a party must win at least 5 percent of the vote. As a result of the coming election, the CDU and SPD are likely to be joined by the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the environmentalist Greens, the Left party (which grew out of the former communist party of East Germany merging with West Germany’s far left), and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), not to mention the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, which is always in coalition with the CDU at national level. The vote will thus be distributed across seven parties leading to more options for coalitions.
After more than a quarter century of uninterrupted economic growth, Australians like to think their country is an exception to contemporary rich economy ills. But recent numbers challenge the view that Australia is indeed fairer and more prosperous than other advanced economies. Those numbers show not only a dramatic decline in the rate of growth of wages, but also a sharp fall in the wages share of national income, slow output growth, high underemployment, and low confidence. Some of this is said to result from the end of the mining boom, validating gloomy forecasts offered in past years. Whatever the cause, any sharp increase in inequality or fall in incomes is likely to promptly show up in Australian politics, as it already has in the US and the UK.
In How to be Exceptional, a Lowy Institute analysis published last year, I found that in many respects Australia was doing quite well compared to the US, the UK and Europe in the fairness of income distribution and in prospects for continued prosperity. In a 2014 Lowy Institute Paper published by Penguin, Beyond the Boom, I argued that despite weaker commodity prices and sharply falling mining investment, the Australian economy would not only escape recession but continue to do reasonably well. Given the recent weaker growth in wages and output, along with a lacklustre jobs market, it's time for another look.
Economic growth drifted down to 1.7% in the year to March. That is well below potential and well below the average of 3.2% annual growth over the last 25 years - though a long way from a recession. With non-mining business investment picking up and mining investment bottoming out, GDP growth should be stronger over the rest of this year.
But while output growth will likely pick up, there is increasing concern about how income is distributed than how fast it is growing.
As tensions between the U.S. and Russia heat up, the concept of the Intermarium alliance among Eastern European states to block Russia’s expansion westward is gaining steam. Romania and Poland – both of which have strong military ties to the U.S., a major supporter of the Intermarium – have long been the pillars of this emerging alliance. Hungary has been the major holdout.
Hungary is sometimes seen as a rogue nation in Europe for its close ties to Russia, as well as its opposition to Brussels. But for years, it has courted both Moscow and Washington. It is reliant on Russian natural gas imports, but it also depends on the European Union for trade and structural funding and on NATO for security.
But the relatively cold welcome offered to Russian President Vladimir Putin on his recent visit to Budapest indicates Hungary is veering away from building closer ties to the Kremlin. The Hungarian government visibly downplayed the visit, and the leaders of the two countries opted not to hold a press conference, which is normally routine on such diplomatic trips.
On Monday, the highly respected English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily, under pressure from the government to shut down, published its last edition. The front page led with a photo of Cambodia’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha, being escorted into detention by police after his arrest on Sunday. The two events augur terribly for the country and are an acceleration of Prime Minister Hun Sen's efforts (previously noted here and here) to silence opposition and ensure victory at next year’s general election.
The Cambodia Daily, founded in 1993, had a reputation for independence in an otherwise restricted media landscape. Despite a small circulation, it had a strong following among a select elite as well as the expatriate community. It had other strengths as well: a regular supplement was used as an English learning tool in local schools and the newspaper has been an incubator for young Cambodian and foreign journalists in the country.
On Monday, the tax department issued a notice that bans the newspaper’s publishers from leaving the country until they pay a US$6.3 million tax bill. The Daily said the figure was astronomical and reported the government had not audited or reviewed the newspaper’s accounts.
The newspaper's founder, American Bernard Krishner, once noted that former Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk had regarded the newspaper as his 'CIA,' offering independent information on what was happening around the country. Perhaps, for a time, it had served a similar purpose for Hun Sen. Today, much of the intel function played by the Daily can be found on social media.
North Korea staged its sixth nuclear test. It was probably a boosted atomic rather than hydrogen bomb, as claimed by Pyongyang, and there’s no evidence that the weapon has been miniaturized to fit on a missile. But the test was the North’s most powerful yet. And it follows steady North Korean progress in missile development.
Despite matching Kim Jong-un bluster for bluster, President Donald Trump is doing no better than his cerebral predecessor in halting Pyongyang’s military developments. President George W. Bush had no more success, first targeting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a member of the infamous “axis of evil,” before flip-flopping to negotiate with the current ruler’s father. At least Bill Clinton achieved a temporary freeze of the DPRK’s plutonium program with the Agreed Framework, which ultimately was undermined by both sides.
Despite its relative poverty and isolation, North Korea has confounded the experts and made surprising advances in both nuclear and missile technology. While all projections are conjecture, Pyongyang may become a medium nuclear power with an effective deterrent against the United States.
That doesn’t mean Kim Jong-un intends to wage war on America. Rather, he hopes to prevent Washington from attacking the DPRK. It’s an important distinction. Kim may be evil but, like his father and grandfather, there is no evidence that he is suicidal. They all appeared to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next. Indeed, Kim may hope to extend the dynasty: his wife is thought to have given birth to their third child earlier this year.
After North Korea conducted its sixth underground nuclear test, which was 10 times stronger than its last one, the US responded by warning Pyongyang that any threat to the US or its allies would be met with a “massive military response”. Donald Trump tweeted that he is considering ceasing trade with any country that does business with the north – and of course, it’s clear which countries he meant.
China is the top destination for North Korean goods, with exports worth US$2.83 billion, dwarfing the US$97.8m that northern products fetch from second-placed India. That leaves China exposed to the US’s unpredictable ire.
Prior to the nuclear test, South Korea had already sought a review of a cap on ballistic missile numbers; Trump approved it, meaning Seoul can now increase the distance and the force of its missiles, an outcome sure to discomfort Beijing. Shortly after the test, South Korea’s defence ministry said that it will deploy four more Terminal High Altitude Defence (THAAD) missile systems. This is bound to further frustrate Beijing, which is still fuming about the systems deployed already.
It has been a tumultuous 18 months for British and American politics. Perhaps inevitably, as each country’s domestic political scene has been fundamentally transformed, the relationship itself will change.
In the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House, our primary focus is on US foreign policy. But foreign policy is never completely disconnected from domestic policy: How a country acts abroad may not be a direct reflection of its population’s interests, but it is certainly shaped by domestic constraints. Especially in a close-knit partnership like that between the United States and Britain, the state of domestic politics shapes the relationship, cross-pollinating ideas and trends that impact approaches to other aspects of foreign policy.
So to better understand what lessons American and British politics might learn from each other, we reached out to political commentators on both sides of the political spectrum and on both sides of the Atlantic. We asked themwhat aspects of the other country’s politics they saw as worthy of emulation. The responses are reproduced below in lightly edited form:
From the British right: The rigid US electoral cycle helps prevent chaos
One very dark December morning in the early 1990s I found myself shuffling my boot-clad feet, trying to keep warm as I waited on an ice-covered rail platform 150-odd miles northeast of Moscow. As a Russian colleague and I began to conclude the train would never arrive, he quietly explained that we were standing atop hundreds of bodies. The prison trains leaving Moscow during the 1930s arrived in these very same switching yards and, as they were divided up to head to different labor camps, those who hadn’t survived were simply tossed into a pit by the tracks.
Traveling around the former Soviet Union during the 1990s and 2000s I visited a score of mass gravesites scattered across eleven time zones. Some are now marked by elaborate monuments, others are identified by simple Orthodox crosses. Many more exist only by the memories of those who know.
The 20th Century was humankind’s bloodiest by far; and the challenge of the twenty-first must be to avoid the carnage that preceded it. The task is in no way a simple one as people move around more easily than in the past, crowd into cities at unprecedented rates, and increasingly encounter others whom they simply do not like. How can we avoid slaughtering one another as more and more humans who can’t stand each other must share the same space? We don’t seem to know.
We are doomed to repeat the slaughter of the past if the answer has to be to turn haters into lovers; the intolerant into tolerant. The resolution can only be to make it more advantageous for people to act as if they tolerate one another. To do so requires constant civic leadership and a mindset which rejects the complacency that often accompanies success. The task of managing diversity is never complete.