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21 July 2018   Leave a comment

Public focus on nuclear weapons has waned in recent years, even as the major nuclear powers–the US, Russia, and China–have been modernizing their arsenals.  The nuclear states are developing weapons that are explicitly designed to make the threat of their actual use more credible.  For example, bombs with lower explosive force are designed to make the opportunities for “limited” nuclear attacks; missiles are developed that fly many times faster than the speed of sound are thought to limit the possibilities for anti-missile systems; and precision-guided nuclear bombs are touted as limiting the number of civilian casualties in a nuclear war.   These new weapons are also highly expensive and will likely lead to ever higher military spending as counter-tactics are developed to address the new threats.  Behind all this activity is the underlying reality that strategists are making assumptions that are increasingly divorced from the underlying political realities that underpin decision-making.  Andrew Cockburn has written a long essay for Harper’s on these new weapons in the light of our actual historical experience of living with nuclear weapons.  It is a detailed and disturbing essay, but well worth the read.

Scene From Dr. Stangelove

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Posted July 21, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

20 July 2018   Leave a comment

The US House of Representatives has stripped out a provision in a “must-pass” defense appropriation bill that would have prohibited the Chinese telecom firm, ZTE, from buying US technology for its products.  The company was punished by the US Commerce Department in 2016 because it was selling telecommunications equipment with US technology to countries that were being sanctioned by the US: Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Syria and Cuba.   That decision was overturned by US President Trump because the punishment threatened the dissolution of the company and the punishment was changed to a hefty financial fine.  But many in Congress believed that the sanctions punishment needed to be reinstated in order to maintain US credibility as it tries to encourage other states to keep the economic pressure on North Korea and Iran, specifically.  The legislative change represents a significant concession to the Chinese government as well as a huge hole in the US sanctions strategy.  And today Russia and China both blocked a US effort to tighten oil sanctions on North Korea and the oil sanctions regime is falling apart even as President Trump continues to talk about “”maximum pressure” on North Korea.  Recent studies indicate that North Korea has already imported about a million barrels of oil in 2018.

 

We are still trying to find out what happened during the two-hour meeting between US President Trump and Russian President Putin at their summit in Helsinki.  Apparently, there has been no significant debriefing of any US officials about any agreements that were made.  But the Russians are clearly delighted with the results and are treating the summit as a victory for President Putin.  One needs to remember that, after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, US President Obama characterized Russia as a “regional”, not a global, power, a slight that President Putin intends to erase.  Eduard Lozansky, writing in the Russian newspaper, Izvestia, called Trump’s behavior at the summit a “small miracle” and that “the summit did take place, and the results exceeded all expectations.”  Matthew Bodner, writing in The New Republic, points out the significance of Putin’s success in Helsinki as a source of domestic legitimacy for a Russian economy that is clearly on the ropes:

“Putin’s domestic legitimacy is increasingly rooted in a sense that he has restored Russia as a great and respected international power. So long as he delivers perceived victories, even if those victories come in the form of righteous handshakes, he will be popular. In that sense, Trump’s obsequious performance on Monday may have as much of an effect on Russian domestic politics as on American domestic politics, adding to Putin’s authoritarian hand—already bolstered by Russia’s highly successful hosting of the World Cup—in dealing with his electorate.

Despite his success at the summit, President Putin showcased new Russian weapons on Thursday, as if to highlight Russia’s return to “great power” status.  The weapons included Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, advanced Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles, prototypes of upgraded nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missiles, the Poseidon unmanned underwater drones, Avangard missile complex with a completely new gliding maneuverable warhead, and the Peresvet laser complexes.  Many of these new weapons are not yet ready for deployment, but the Russian statement will no doubt stimulate another round of defense spending.

What is completely inexplicable is that President Trump has invited Mr. Putin to the White House in the fall.  He did so without any reference to whatever foundations the Helsinki summit may have created for subsequent meetings, without consulting Dan Coates, the Director of National Intelligence, without referencing an agenda for the second meeting, and without addressing the Russian attack on the US electoral system in 2016.   I am a true believer in dialogue between adversaries, but dialogues lead nowhere unless they are based on frank and open discussions of divisive issues.  Moreover, Putin should not step foot into the White House until the US electoral system is protected against another attack.  Already, there have three Russian attacks on US political campaigns in 2018.  If Trump wants to meet Putin, they can talk in Trump Tower, not in the White House.

Posted July 20, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

19 July 2018   Leave a comment

Israel has passed what is known as the Jewish Nation-State Law, a basic law which supersedes the Israeli Declaration of Independence (1948) and has the legal status comparable to that of a constitutional amendment in the US.  Here is the text of the law as published in the Jerusalem Post:

Basic Law: Israel – The nation state of the Jewish people

1.  The State of Israel

a) Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the state of Israel was established.
b) The state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, in which it actualizes its natural, religious, and historical right for self-determination.
c) The actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

2.  National symbols of the State of Israel

a) The name of the state is Israel.
b) The flag of the state is white, two blue stripes near the edges, and a blue Star of David in the center.
c) The symbol of the state is the Menorah with seven branches, olive leaves on each side, and the word Israel at the bottom.
d) The national anthem of the state is “Hatikvah”
e) [Further] details concerning the issue of state symbols will be determined by law.

3. [The] unified and complete [city of] Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

4. The Language of the State of Israel

a) Hebrew is the language of the state.
b) The Arabic language has a special status in the state; the regulation of the Arab language in state institutions or when facing them will be regulated by law.
c) This clause does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created.

5. The state will be open to Jewish immigration and to the gathering of the exiled.

6. The Diaspora

a) The state will labor to ensure the safety of sons of the Jewish people and its citizens who are in trouble and captivity due to their Jewishness or their citizenship.
b) The state will act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora.

7. The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.

8. The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the secular calendar will serve as an official calendar. The usage of the Hebrew calendar and of the secular calendar will be determined by law. 

9. National Holidays

a) Independence Day is the official holiday of the state.
b) The Memorial Day for those who fell in the wars of Israel and the Memorial Day for the Holocaust and heroism are official memorial days of the state.

10. Saturday and the Jewish Holidays are the official days of rest in the state. Those who are not Jewish have the right to honor their days of rest and their holidays. Details concerning these matters will be determined by law.

11. This Basic Law may not be altered except by a Basic Law that gained the approval of the majority of the Knesset members.

It is difficult to pin down exactly what this law does, but a comparison with the language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence is instructive.  The new law does seem to be inconsistent with these two passages in the Declaration:

“The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

“….we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to return to the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship and the representation in all its bodies and institutions, provisional or permanent.”

These two passages seem inconsistent with Clause 1(c) of the new law which reads: “The actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”  There are two concerns.  First, by saying that the right of self-determination is unique to the Jewish people, questions are raised about non-Jews in Israel.  In 2017, there were 6,484,000 Jews in Israel/Palestine and 2,196,000 non-Jews.  Jews constitute 74.6% of the population of Israel.  But if one includes the population of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, the demographic mix changes.  If some political rights are reserved exclusively for Jews in Israel, then the country will ultimately be ruled by a minority if the Occupied Territories are annexed.  The relegation of the Arabic language to non-official status symbolizes some of the fears of non-Jews in Israel.

Population of Israel, State of Palestine and British Palestine by Religious Group: 1922-2035, in millions

The second concern is for non-Orthodox Jews. There are four movements in modern Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.  In Israel, most matters of faith are handled by the “Orthodox chief rabbinate over matters like marriage, conversion, and other aspects of personal and civil status”.  Non-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and abroad, are worried that the new law will relegate them to second-class status.  This issue has been an ongoing debate in Israel for many years, and the new law may aggravate those tensions.

Another concern about the new law revolves around its endorsement of the settlement process in Point 7: “The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”  The settlement process has divided the Israelis from the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (which were occupied by Israel after the War in 1967).  The Palestinians regard the Occupied Territories as their homeland and the settlement process makes the possibilities for a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible.  The Israelis and Palestinians both endorsed the “Two-State Solution” in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, but that objective was never realized and Israeli settlements have accelerated in recent years.  The world continues to regard the Occupied Territories in the light of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians (1949) which forbids the transfer of populations or permanent changes in occupied territories, but Israel no longer refers to the regions as “occupied”.  Given the decision of the US to recognize the entire city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it seems that the US no longer considers the two-state solution as an objective.

It is too soon to assess the full impact of the new law, but it seems clear that many ambiguous issues remain unresolved.  Nonetheless, the law has raised serious apprehensions among non-Jews in Israel and it is likely that it will be vigorously contested.

Posted July 19, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

18 July 2018   Leave a comment

In an interview with Fox News correspondent, Tucker Carlson, President Trump raised serious questions about the US commitment to NATO.  Mr. Carlson raised the specter of defending a tiny state, Montenegro, against a Russian attack and whether the US commitment to NATO would pull the US into a war with Russia over a state that Mr. Carlson seemed to believe was not worth the price.  Mr. Trump’s response revealed that he understands little about the true nature of the NATO alliance or any comprehension of deterrence strategy.  Mr Trump’s response was, according to ABC News: “The president replied that he’s asked the same question. Montenegro ‘may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III,’ Trump said.  [If you would like to watch the entire interview, click here.  Carlson’s commentary and questions in the interview are highly revealing]

The first point to make is that NATO is a defense alliance.  No NATO state is obliged to defend another member state that initiates a war.  When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, no member of NATO joined the invasion under the rubric of the alliance because Iraq had not attacked the US.  Contrariwise, the only time NATO has ever invoked Article V of the alliance charter which states that “an attack against one shall be considered an attack against all” was in 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of 11 September 2001 against the US.

Second, Russia has been trying hard to undermine Montenegro ever since it joined NATO in 2017, including a plot to assassinate the country’s Prime Minister.  Liberal states in NATO should be concerned with protecting other liberal states, particularly against aggressive actions by a non-liberal state such as Russia.  Russia has violated international law by attacking Georgia and dismembering parts of that country in 2008, creating two new entities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia which have yet to be recognized as legitimate states by most of the international community.

Russia also invaded and annexed part of, Crimea, as part of Russia in 2014.  It has also maintained a rebellion against the government of Ukraine in the eastern part of the country since that time, supporting a secessionist movement to dismember the country.  Ukraine is not a member of NATO Interestingly, the Trump political campaign was able to remove a strong pro-Ukrainian position from the Republican Party’s platform in the 2016 campaign.  That amendment included support for “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military and read, in part, “Today, the post-Cold War ideal of a ‘Europe whole and free’ is being severely tested by Russia’s ongoing military aggression in Ukraine….The Ukrainian people deserve our admiration and support in their struggle.”  The removal of the Ukrainian plank in the Republican platform was a clear aberration from historical Party positions vis-a-vis Russia.

Russia also indicated in 2014 that it sees a role in protecting Russian-speaking populations in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which became members of NATO in 2004.  There are, indeed, many Russian-speaking people in the Baltic states.  According to The Guardian: “In 2015, the Foreign Policy Research Institute found that the percentage of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia make up around 24% and 27% of the populations as a whole, whereas Lithuania can only boast of a population of 6%. Coincidentally, the percentage of ethnic Russians in Latvia is the same as that found in Crimea.”  The Baltic states were once unwilling parts of the former Soviet Union (given to the USSR by the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty between Nazi Germany and the USSR in 1939) and Russian military provocations against them in recent years have been numerous and highly unsettling.

In other words, Russian attacks against Montenegro seem to be part of a pattern.  Russian President Putin once declared that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” and many analysts have interpreted that statement as evidence of his desire to restore the boundaries as well as the formidable power of the former USSR.

Third, one need not believe that Putin is a highly aggressive totalitarian leader bent on world conquest to support a defensive alliance such as NATO.  I certainly do not believe that Putin is another Hitler.  He is, rather, the opportunistic leader of a middle-range power (Russia’s nuclear weapons notwithstanding) with significant economic weaknesses.  He also, unfortunately, lives in the balance of power world of the 19th century since his country is totally unsuited to prosper in the globalized world of the 21st century.  His only strategy is to exploit perceived weaknesses to assert Russian power, but he can be counted on to assiduously exploit the weaknesses of others.   A unified NATO is a relatively inexpensive way of checking Putin’s ambitions; weakening NATO only increases the number of opportunities for the expansion of Russian power.  President Trump’s behavior during the recent NATO summit magnified the natural fissures that exist in any alliance comprised of 29 sovereign states and was therefore a serious strategic blunder.

Finally, weakening NATO only increases uncertainty in world politics.  All member states of NATO are now going through the very difficult process of trying to figure out whether the US under the leadership of President Trump is a reliable alliance partner.  Lacking the clear certainty about the reliability of the US means that NATO states are now forced to think about alternative ways to defend their interests in the absence of US support.  Each of the 28 states will now take actions to fill that confidence gap and each of those actions will have knock-on effects on the calculations of the other member of NATO as well as on non-members of NATO.  The security dilemma of world politics–the unfortunate situation in which defensive actions taken by a state often are interpreted as offensive actions by its neighbors–is thus amplified in ways that are often unpredictable and dangerous.

Posted July 18, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

17 July 2018   Leave a comment

It will take us all more time to process the results of the meeting between US President Trump and Russian President Putin.  It is important for us to remember that Mr. Trump initiated this meeting, initially wanting Mr. Putin to come to the White House but finally settling on the neutral site offered by Finland.  We should also remember that many analysts raised serious concerns about the wisdom of the meeting, which gave great standing to Mr. Putin.

Under those circumstances, one would imagine that Mr. Trump had objectives he wished to attain.  It turns out that we actually know very little about how US national security was protected in the summit.  The 2-hour conversation between the two remains opaque aside from oblique references to Syria, North Korea, Iran, and arms control.  In many respects, our lack of information about the discussion is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the summit.

All attention, however, is riveted on the press conference held by the two in which the main area of concern was on the Russian attack on the American election in 2016.  And President Trump humiliated himself and the country by his refusal to confront Mr. Putin when he was asked about the 2016 attack.  Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International peace have written a short essay in which they encapsulate the impact of the press conference on Mr. Trump’s stance:

“Never before has a U.S. President so willfully catered to an American adversary and so effortlessly sacrificed American values and interests as the entire world watched. His performance starkly highlighted not only a lack of impulse control and appallingly poor judgment, but also a consistent and inexplicable willingness to submit to Russian interests. This was not a display of ‘America first,’ but rather a very disturbing performance by a man who put himself and Russia above American interests and American values…..

“There were no grand betrayals on substance at Helsinki. Trump didn’t endorse Russia’s annexation of Crimea, undermine NATO’s Article 5 or cancel Baltic military exercises. But with Putin beside him, and before all the world to see, Trump stood there, passive, weak, feckless and all too willing to do Putin’s bidding. Trump played the role of the fool or, as Lenin might have described him, a “’useful idiot.’”

President Trump tried to correct his statements at the Helsinki press conference today by suggesting that he had misspoke:  “In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word “would” instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ … The sentence should’ve been, and I thought it would be maybe a little but unclear on the transcript … ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. You can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things by itself.”  Even if one gives Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt and accept that change, but then none of his other comments at the press conference are consistent with the change.  His feeble effort at a correction is an insult to our intelligence.

Which leaves us with an interesting question:  Does President Trump have the will or the capability to defend the national interest of the United States?  I think not.

Posted July 17, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

15 July 2018   Leave a comment

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) has published a study of NATO defense spending which addresses the major flaw in comparing defense budgets among the members:  US defense spending reflects it global commitments and European defense spending reflects regional security concerns.  Thus, the argument that the US funds 72% of NATO activities is misleading.  According to the FPRI:

“But this viewpoint overstates U.S. contributions and undermines the need for European contributions.  The United States’ share of the aggregate NATO member defense spending may be 72% of the total, but that accounts for the entire U.S. defense budget. The U.S defense budget is not paid to NATO, is not entirely available to NATO for spending, and is not an allocation of the U.S. forces and combat power for which NATO can practically plan. Worse, this allotment exaggerates the resources available to Europe’s defense and undercuts the rationale for why increased contributions from NATO countries should be a priority for the Alliance.”

The chart below reflects European defense spending with respect to the most serious security concern of European states–Russia–and suggests that European defense spending is commensurate with its threat.  Indeed, if one breaks down US defense spending, perhaps only 25% of its budget is allocated to European security.  According to James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation:

“The United States defense budget is larger than the combined total of its NATO allies, but the bulk of that, perhaps 75 percent, is devoted to the defense of Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq other allies and partners in Asia and the Middle East and of course the continental United States.”

The discussion about US support for NATO needs to be much more nuanced than it has been so far.  Indeed, much of the criticism from US President Trump seems to be specific to Germany and not NATO as a whole.

 

The Trump-Putin summit will take place in Helsinki tomorrow and we still do not have a clear idea of what is on the agenda.  But Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institute has written an essay on Putin’s objectives in the summit.  It appears as if Putin learned a lot from how the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore and is prepared to exploit Mr. Trump’s relative inexperience in diplomacy.  No matter what happens in Helsinki, Putin has achieved what Kim also achieved: recognition of equal status with the US.  For his part, President Trump does not appear to be optimistic about what might happen.  He told CBS News: ““I go in with low expectations.  I’m not going with high expectations.”  Of most concern to many is how the US may change its strategy in Syria, essentially giving Russia free rein in Syria in exchange for an unenforceable promise to contain Iranian power in Syria.  What us clear us that global attitudes toward the US vis-a-vis Russia have changed dramatically in recent years.

U.S. edge on favorability around the world shrinks

 

Israel’s ruling party, Likud, is pushing a very controversial bill in the Knesset which would legalize “Jewish-only communities”.  The bill has been discussed over many years, but it is expected to come up for a vote very soon.  According to the Middle East Monitor:

“The bill is expected to come to a final vote at the Israeli parliament (Knesset) on Monday. If passed, it could become part of Israel’s basic laws that serve as a de facto constitution.

“The draft law prioritises Jewish values over democratic ones in the occupied territories, declares Jerusalem al-Quds the “capital” of Israel, allows Jewish-only communities, sets Hebrew as the official language of Israel and relegates Arabic from an official language to one with ‘special status.’”

The bill is likely to be modified, but the discussion has been highly contentious within Israel and also with the Jewish communities abroad.  It poses the central dilemma of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

Posted July 15, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

14 July 2018   Leave a comment

Haitian Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant has resigned as he faced a vote of no confidence from the Parliament over protests over fuel prices increases ordered by the International Monetary Fund.  Even though the price increases were rescinded, the protests have continued and Lafontant no longer had support within the Parliament.  The IMF said that it expected the Haitian government to submit a revised reform plan, but any plan will probably have to include reductions in subsidies to the poor.

 

Israelis and Palestinians exchanged intense fire along the border of the Gaza Strip.  Hamas launched more than 100 missiles toward Israel and Israeli fighter jets responded with over 40 sir strikes.  It was the most intense confrontation since the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip.  According to the New York Times:

“Saturday’s fighting did not arise out of the blue: It came as a ratcheting-up of hostilities a day earlier, when an Israeli army officer was wounded by an explosive hurled across the barrier fence from Gaza, and an unarmed 14-year-old Palestinian boy was shot and killed as he climbed the fence.”

Egypt and the Islamic Jihad tried to broker a cease-fire which seems to be holding, but it is quite fragile.  Tensions between Hamas and Israel have been building for months.

 

US President Trump made comments during his trip to England which raised serious questions about his immigration policies.  In the past he has linked immigration to security fears such as the Central American gang M-13 or to radical Islamist terrorists. But ABC News reported his comments in this way:

“President Trump doubled down on his hardline immigration views on Friday, saying he thinks immigration is a ‘very negative thing’ for Europe and that European leaders ‘better watch themselves’ because immigration is ‘changing the culture. I know it is politically not necessarily correct to say that, but I will say it and I will say it loud,’ Trump said during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

“’I think it’s been very bad for Europe. I think Europe is a place I know very well and I think what has happened is very tough. It’s a very tough situation,’ Trump said. ‘I just think it’s changing the culture. It’s a very negative thing for Europe.'”

President Trump seems to be saying that immigration is intrinsically a bad thing, a rather remarkable statement from the leader of a country that is comprised largely of a population derived from immigration.

Posted July 14, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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