Bannon, ever controversial

A short comment on Steve Bannon’s interview with Robert Kuttner from The American Prospect.

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Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, called Robert Kuttner from the American Prospect on Wednesday. Contrary to Scaramucci’s call with Ryan Lizza from the New Yorker, Bannon refrained from hateful incentives and vile insults. More so, the chief strategist bared his views on North Korea, China and Charlottesville in what appeared to be a more or less reasonable and substantive call, regardless of his seemingly weak position within the White House.

Contrary to his boss, Bannon seems well-informed and contradicted Trump’s ‘fire and fury’, noting that “there’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats]” and that his focus was fully on “the economic war with China”. Again, he goes against his boss, whose priorities are less with his campaign promises but concern more with the century-old mantra’s of the big-business Republican branch, which is, ironically, the swampy center of the Republican party.

Kuttner has long criticized trade with China and he explained the call by noting that Bannon wants to build a sort of coalition of “trade hawks” with people from both the left and the right. Again, whether you agree or don’t, respect Bannon or don’t, it’s refreshing to see that Bannon seems more free from dogmatic and partisan shackles, venturing to bring people from both the left and the right together in their mutual adversity towards globalism.

Charlottesville, “a bunch of losers”

Bannon was already a kind of chief strategist during the campaign. His Breitbart brought white nationalism, anti-immigration and at times neo-nazism to the mainstream and rallied them for Trump. Speculating whether Trump would have been in the White House if Breitbart and Steve Bannon weren’t there to help him is frivolous. Nonetheless, the alt-right is most consistent in its defense of Trump and Breitbart seems to play a helping hand in that. The aforementioned aside, Bannon did rightly condemn the protests in Charlottesville:

“Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”

The former seems like an effort to please both sides, especially considering that in the same interview he wished that Democrats would keep talking about racism, Bannon would then have clear water before him to propose his program of economic nationalism. All in all, it’s quite promising to see that Trump’s chief strategist has a more nuanced and less reactionary view with regard to North Korea. What’s even more promising is that Bannon is willing to invite to the White House a writer for the American Prospect, an unmistakably leftist magazines that is consistent in its disdain for the Trump administration.

The US and North Korea, business as usual?

However daunting it may seem, the most recent feud with the North seems – lest some notable exceptions – business as usual.

Opinion writers take pride in linking Trump’s win to certain phenomena – a shifting Democratic base, contemptuous liberals, changing media landscapes, Trump’s radically different campaign and his calls for hard power, the Russians, the list goes on. As with foreign policy, electoral victory is dependent on innumerable factors, all aforementioned ingredients add in some way to the serving but it is no secret that Trump seeks to grow the military, increase the US’ hard powers and decimate the state department. The results start to show in the most serious crisis encountered by the Trump administration yet. Trump’s disconnect from the state department and the accompanying absence of thought and thoroughness is sadly unsurprising and, as he called for ‘fire and fury’ or even tougher action, the state department was predictably sidelined.

Exporting threats

Ironic as it may seem shortly after the strictest batch of sanctions was passed, the regime’s prime export product remains free to cross the border: threats. Japan and the US, as well as the North’s southern neighbors, have been subject to its intimidation so frequently that, at first sight, it seems miraculous that none sparked an armed conflict. Over the years, there have been similar diplomatic moments of razzle-dazzle or, for a less British euphemism: a verbal tug of war. However you’d like to call it, commentators and analysts alike have not feared comparisons with the Cuban missile crisis or the invasion in Iran.

Although these crises often passed silently, this feud is quite different. For one, Mr. Kim’s statements are almost indistinguishable from the president’s and in a verbal battle between an autocratic all-controlling leader and a president whose praise for such absolute rulers has remained throughout his time in office, tensions rise high. Quite the contrary to previous years, when it was easy to sideline and ignore the DPRK’s supreme leader as a ‘rambling lunatic’. Most importantly, however, according to the Washington Post, the country is able to miniaturize its nuclear capabilities and aim its functioning inter-continental missiles at the US, meaning that the regime’s long awaited insurance policy is no longer merely the subject of speculation.

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Despite my lack of expertise in the area, it’s easy to conclude that North Korea’s perspective is very simple; keep the regime in power. State media portray the US as a force of capitalism and evil, a force that simply aims to topple its praised government. The DPRK argues it can only persists if its nuclear arsenal is up to spec. With nuclear miniaturization a possibility and ICBM’s ready, it seems that such an arsenal is no longer a fantasy. The DPRK knows very well that Trump won’t attack since the regime has the capabilities to not only destroy Seoul but to obliterate US cities. On the other hand, the regime won’t attack the United States first since Washington will most certainly claim victory in the war that follows. This, then, is the impasse the world has reached.

Deterrence?

The United States might like the option of regime change – it has a long tradition of crudely toppling regimes it dislikes – but, as John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker, Kim’s aforementioned insurance is paying off. However desired, the installation of a friendly government is not an option. 

Robin Wright, also a staff-writer at the New Yorker, spoke to retired navy admiral and former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Winnefeld. His advice was simple: “Let them stow in their own juices … it’s a fools errand to expect China to solve this”. The Economist aligned with Winnefeld and noted that if diplomacy fails and military action has such horrific consequences, “the only remaining option is to deter and contain Mr. Kim”. As Cassidy notes, it would be an acknowledgement that US policies aimed at the North not acquiring nuclear weaponry has failed. Failing to concede to its own mistakes is typical for the US, note Iran and Iraq during Mossadegh and later Khomeini and Hussein for example. Leaving characteristic Washington megalomania aside, deterrence, together with a thoroughly reviewed personal statement by the president is the only viable and respectable option.

@ Eat Pray Vote!

A business-like White House and John Kelly

In light of maintaining the US government’s international position and the need for a strong foreign policy, John Kelly will bring a welcome change to the White House.

From the campaign trail on, Trump has been pointing to the success of his business as physical examples of his leadership talents. It seemed only logical he would take his experience as a businessman into the White House, his experience in corporate America, however, seems quite the double-edged sword.

For one, running a business is – although it may seem so at first sight – not a one-man job, it requires advisory from both the private- and public sector, furthermore, no business thrives without the necessary channels of communication, the well-being of its employees and satisfaction of its customers. It is for these reasons that Republicans have enjoyed the thought of an executive run by a CEO-like figure on many occasions; Reagan, for example, established a commission that looked to the private sector for ideas with regard to efficiency and removal of the necessary evils that accompany federal bureaucracy. Fellow Republican George W. Bush promised to run government based on a ‘market-based’ approach. Both these examples fit snugly in the Republican mantra of small government.

On the other hand, however, businesses – in their essence – exist for the sole purpose of making money and distributing that money to its respective employees and shareholders. In the private world, customer satisfaction is merely a necessity in the process of making money, not a goal. Furthermore, corporate America prefers short-term dividends over long-term investment, which results in limited innovation. Although previous attempts to modernize parts of government by peering over the shoulders of the chief executive officer have sometimes lent themselves well to efficiency in the oval, a business-esque government falls flat on its face by the above arguments. By definition, this philosophy does not result in a government ‘for the people’, nor does it secure the ‘blessings of Liberty and Posterity’ of its citizens.

Despite obvious faults and fallacies, it seems that the idea of a business-esque government is one of the current administration’s most consistent. Ramifications include an executive that is geared towards short-term wins, an executive that seems to take no interest in its example-setting role and a President that makes his decisions unexpectedly and abruptly, many based on the opinion of the last person or adviser he spoke to, none seem to involve the careful deliberation and thought that government so requires. Trump’s personality traits further add to the administration’s inability to function, for the sake of avoiding reiterations, it is sufficient to note that Trump’s satisfaction at reading his name in one of Magie Haberman’s headlines trumps his will to serve the country as promised.

The gatekeeper

Thermodynamic’s second law – namely that entropy, a quantitative measure of disarray, will always increase – still holds as the White House engages in an outlandish display of chaos; Scaramucci in, Spicer out, Priebus out, Bannon insulted, and, in a bizarre twist of events, Scaramucci out as a result of Kelly in.

Judging from media reports over, Reince Priebus has been a weak chief of staff. His nomination already seemed mostly the result of Trump realizing that ‘draining the swamp’ is more easily said than done, Priebus appeared merely a kind gesture towards the more ‘swampy’ Washington-folk. The previous chief of staff therefore never quite enjoyed the same friendliness with Trump as some of the more ominous, cartoonish figures in his administration, nor were he ever distinctly part of one of the White House factions.

Trump’s – and therefore Priebus’ – oval office has been described as a ‘Grand Central Station’, contrary to the ‘therapist’s couch’. Priebus has left the traditional gatekeeper role of which Chris Whipple speaks in his new book (The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency) at the door and seemingly tried to put Trump in the more accustomed environment of his Trump Tower office. As is plain from the above, the strategy has not worked: no campaign promises have been materialized nor has the swamp been drained, all the while Obama’s legacy still stands, international conflicts ask for dire attention and all that has manifested is either half-baked or hastily established via executive order.

This, then, is Kelly’s task: to promote thought and argument, demote sloppy advisory and first and foremost keep the gate. Whether supportive of Trump or not, whether supportive of his policies and ideology or not; the US government needs to be run and in the light of maintaining its international position, the general will most certainly bring a welcome change to the White House.

Short addendum; journalists have noted that the door to the oval office was often closed for the past few days, seeing patterns within this short while might be a tad optimistic but it seems that Kelly aims to take on the role of keeping the gate.

@ Eat Pray Vote!

G20 Aftermath: New Global Leadership

The tides have indeed turned; the US’s position has weakened as the Trump administration seems to have no interest in global leadership, while China’s domestic problems negate its interest in a similar leadership role. All the while Europe has shrugged off its recent wave of right-wing populism. Economic stability followed political stability as the Union self-handedly recovered from its lows, rewinding the economy to pre-crisis levels. From the start it would be clear that the EU would now set the tone.

G20

Before attending the G7 summit on his previous foreign trip, Trump took the time to increase tensions in the Middle East by sympathizing with Saudi-Arabia and affronting Iran, after which Trump seemed perfectly content with letting Palestine and Israel find a way of solving their increasingly complex conflict. Safe to say, Trump was more of a crowd-pleaser than he was a problem solver, visiting only the countries he knew welcomed his electoral college victory.

Similarly, preceding the G20 summit, Trump took to the stage in Poland, a country that shares with Hungary its illiberal, right-wing government. PiS, the Law and Justice party, strongly opposes immigration and espouses values of Euro-skepticism unseen elsewhere in the union. Its party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, unsurprisingly hailed Trump’s visit as a “new success.” The underlying strategy seemingly entails first to do something that can’t possibly go wrong and can only be touted as a ‘success’ by his base, only after these successes come the summits. Besides cozying up to his supporters at home and in Poland, commentators swiftly described his visit as an attempt to deepen divisions within the European Union, hoping to spur the populists who only reached second place in many of Europe’s elections.

On the other side of the aisle, a new trade deal between the EU and Japan was ratified. This deal not only establishes an economic relationship between the two countries, it entails further cooperation with regard to defense and cyber-security. Less evident than these obvious benefits involved for the two power blocs, however, is the political statement that it symbolizes. Hastily finished before the gathering, it sounds a strong voice against protectionism and isolationist economic policy, showing that Japan and the EU hold hands whilst Trump is letting them go.

Trump and Putin might have been the center of attention during this summit, it was Angela Merkel, German chancellor, whose job it was to channel the summit and make sure that its result – a communique – was of any significance. With her reelection at stake, Merkel had presented herself as the front woman of the liberal west and free trade, with ‘difficult tasks’ ahead, she had to be careful not to give away too much of these values in negotiations with Trump, Putin and Erdogan: The Terrible Trio – as the Economist once named them

After all, however, it wasn’t Merkel, who assiduously persevered and dabbled between the G20 and fierce protests in her own country, who will be remembered. It isn’t for the meager fifteen page communique, full of boilerplate and cliche statements either, which will be largely forgotten by the time of the next summit. Quite frankly, it will be remembered for its stark contrast with previous international gatherings, when a respected US president helped lay the foundation for the Paris accord.

New roles

Let us return to the aforementioned terrible trio; Trump, Putin and Erdogan. The three will set the stage for global relationships in the upcoming decade.

For one, many leaders question Trump’s unpredictability. On the one hand, Trump’s disdain for international cooperation seems clear; on the other hand, this message seems to show only in general diplomatic incompetence, not in actions.

In the case of Putin and Erdogan, it’s not so much a case of questioning, it’s a case of fear. Putin leaves Russia with severe domestic problems, however, his presence on the world stage is prominent as ever. Leaders fear his ever growing sphere of influence in the Eastern parts of Europe, where Putin supports the pro-Russia, illiberal and isolationist countries, one of which is the aforementioned Poland. More worrying is his relationship with Erdogan, the self-made autocrat whose one-man control in Turkey abolished the once secular NATO member. With Turkey moving to Russia, the recent refugee treaties with the EU aren’t as sure a case as they seemed; furthermore Turkey is a key NATO-member as a result of its location and a possible EU-member – although accession talks have stalled – making further cooperation with Russia a frightening development.

It’s these factors combined that divide the world into a small number of huge power-blocs, competing in the arena that Trump’s economic- and national security adviser argue for. Many acclaim that this terrible trio casts a looming shadow over Europe, one that may break apart the Union. If anything, however, it seems to make the EU stronger, as a result of blocs such as Russia, China and the US isolating themselves, it has to take matters into her own hands, leading the way to closer cooperation within the Union and a possible pan-EU defense initiative.

Now, I’d not argue that the world will be at war within the foreseeable future, nor that the world will return to a competition of Western civilizations much akin to the world before the first World War. These dynamics do make for a worrying – albeit interesting – future that, however speculative, shouldn’t be ignored.

A win for Rutte, Putin and Erdogan

It might be obvious that Erdogan benefits from the recent diplomatic spat with the Netherlands. However, with upcoming elections, Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte benefits from his supposedly professional handling of the situation. And Putin, with tensions within the NATO growing significantly, can count himself winner number three.

Turkey dplomatic conflictForeign media – non-Dutch, that is – flock to the Netherlands to witness the upcoming Dutch elections. Geert Wilders’ freedom party is sinking in the polls as prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party and the progressive left under Jesse Klaver are climbing; will this populist tone set forth or will the Netherlands decide to take the more sensible route? Shortly before the spectacle will unfold on the 15th of March comes an unprecedented low in diplomatic relations with Turkey, promising an interesting home straight.

On the 16th of April, the Turkish will vote for constitutional reforms in a nation-wide referendum. This referendum, counting 18 constitutional reforms, states, besides a raise in the number of parliamentary seats, the introduction of an executive presidency. An executive presidency abolishes the office of prime minister and bridges the executive- and legislative branches of government. Effectively handing power to Erdogan, who, judging from his previous contempt for the judiciary and the press, will continue his pro-Russian, non-secular route of autocratic regime.

How we acted

The Turkish secretary of state, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced on March 3 that he planned to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to campaign for a yes-vote in the upcoming Turkish referendum. There are roughly 400.000 Turkish Dutch in the Netherlands who are allowed to vote in the referendum, with a large majority living in Rotterdam. Only hours passed before the Dutch government said that the visit would be “undesirable” and “unwanted”, naming the already tense relations between the Turkish Dutch community and other parts of society. On the 11th of March, the day that Cavusoglu was supposed to campaign, his landing rights were evoked by the Dutch government, citing public security concerns. The plane then flew to Germany, where the Turkish family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, decided to try a car. The cat-and-mouse game continued and upon arrival at the Turkish embassy, the family minister – an eerie ministry – was declared persona non grata and sent back to Germany. Erdogan responded by calling the Dutch “fascist” and “remnants of a Nazi past”, seemingly forgetting that Rotterdam was once bombed to the ground by the Nazi’s. 

Protests sparked in both Rotterdam and Turkey. The skies colored by red Turkish flags. In Rotterdam, many Turkish Dutch set to the streets, one of them – famously, as it went viral on social media – asking “What is this? What is this?”. In Turkey, many set to the streets to protest against the now fascist and Nazi-reminiscent Netherlands, it was now the Netherlands’ turn to ask: “What is this? What is this?”. 

How we should have acted

In the first place, the right to freedom of gathering and freedom of speech should have prevailed. By the standards of any decent liberal interpretation, one should be able to voice his opinion, even when the government strongly condemns it. Second, the government should have foreseen that blocking two Turkish ministers plays right into Erdogan’s wheelhouse. Every opposition is set aside with lumpen statements, claiming these countries are terrorists or Nazi’s, fueling nationalism and winning trust with the Turkish people. Erdogan knew very well that sending two diplomats to the Netherlands would be controversial and conflict provoking. A win for Erdogan.

In the Netherlands, the elections seem to be mostly about the trustworthiness of our current prime-minister Mark Rutte, the populist rhetoric and curious campaign-absence of demagogue Geert Wilders, the youth and progressiveness of Jesse Klaver and the comeback of centrist parties. Wilders, quite predictably, decided to protest against the Turkish minister and proposed tough measures. Rutte, who later said that he would have handled in the same way had this happened last year, acted firmly, claiming that the Netherlands wants to “de-escalate” but that escalation might be inevitable. Of course, one can wonder about the credibility of such statements. Rutte has portrayed himself as the one to stop Wilders, hoping for a bifurcation and, evidently, a third term. By taking a tough stand the prime minister takes the Wilders-esque route and wins votes as a trustworthy leader, forgetting that his move was both strategically questionable and against all moral values of his liberal party. After all, however, a win for Rutte.

Third, and I have not seen this aspect covered yet, one can wonder what this means for NATO-relations. By cooperating with the Turkish government in Syria, delivering oil and easing trade, the Russian government is creating a Turkish dependency on the Russians as well as pulling Turkey out of NATO. With NATO-relations already under pressure, a diplomatic conflict between two members is a welcome surprise to the Russians. Most European countries have now approved of Mark Rutte’s move, however, France – an important NATO-country – has handled Turkish campaigning as described above; by not doing anything. With the weakening of NATO-relations, however slightly, comes a win for Putin.