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.


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.

Sessions hearing

Sessions hearing will most certainly show exceptional craftsmanship in the art of dodging questions.

This will be the first of those short comments I talked about in a previous ‘technical update‘. Note again, these comments have a more reactionary – and I presume more traditional – blog-like nature. Please note that this article was written before the hearing.

James Comey’s testimony last week drew 19 million live viewers, causing CNN to cry impeachment and Fox News to denounce Comey as the ‘grandstander’ that he seemingly is. As a Dutchman, the mainstream media landscape in the United States seems almost binary compared to the relatively neutral outlets in the Netherlands – of course, there are the inevitable exceptions, however, nothing as extraordinarily disproportionate. Let us reserve these objections – or qualities, as some make the ridiculous claim that ‘choice’ is a good thing – for another time.

Whichever side you occupy, Comey’s testimony undoubtedly raised questions concerning the role of attorney general Sessions with regard to Trump’s two current scandals: whether his campaign colluded with the Russians and whether the investigation concerning possible collaboration is a casus for Trump obstructing justice. Both being reason enough for impeachment and conviction.

Today, the thirteenth of June, is the day Sessions will testify before the senate intelligence committee. As a long time Trump ally, his senate hearing will most certainly showcase a particularly exceptional piece of verbal twisting and -turning. Whether Sessions dodges or answers is the real question, lawmakers better adapt their inquiries as to pressure him to dodge or answer.

In March I wrote about Sessions’ ‘Russian love affair’. Sessions, known for preparing extensively, walked through his senate hearings rather unscathed. With Democrats accepting him as the best they were going to get and Republicans lauding him at every turn. That is, of course, except for failing to mention his meetings with Russian ambassador Sergei Kysliak, causing him to finally recuse from all ongoing investigations with regard to the 2016 campaign. The scope of this recusal is still unclear, with Rosenstein also unable to dwell on it earlier today. Sessions will most certainly dodge most questions concerning the campaign, claiming that he recused from the investigations and therefore has no insight. Lawmakers should thus try and clarify the scope of his recusal as well as press for definitive answers concerning a rumored third meeting with Kysliak which could possibly make his recusal meaningless.

An interesting, albeit a little long, article from The Washington Post. 

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.


Sessions’ Russian love affair

A short evaluation of the Sessions’ story and its consequences, as well as the general effect of Trump’s positive position with regard to Russia.

In a 1969 agreement between the USSR and the US, both parties decided upon leasing ‘Mount Alto’ to the Russians in an 85-year deal. Here, in Washington DC, we find an impressive white marble building, the embassy of the Russian Federation. Heading southeast, we find ourselves in downtown DC, where the residence of the Russian ambassador to the United States is situated. An American architectural monument built as a wedding gift to Congressman Frank Lowden, an equally impressive piece of twentieth century architecture. Calling this residence home is the current Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. Now that some key figures in the Trump administration are suspected of alleged ties with Russia, the normally low-key ambassador is a key figures in a political scandal in the making.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a name that does not truly reflect his families stature, has praised himself to be a kind of bearer of the South, reflecting classic Southern conservatism; he rejects gay marriage and transgender laws, he opposes immigration and is an early advocate of protectionism, predicting even that Trump would win as a result of his isolationist rhetoric. He seems to have embraced Ted Kennedy’s statement that he is a ‘throwback to a shameful era’.

Since the shameful confirmation process that lead to Sessions’ being rejected a spot as a federal lawyer in 1986, Sessions’ has been known to prepare extensively for his senate hearings. He brought several witnesses with him to prove that his ideology was not based on racism, however, when asked whether he had communicated with Kislyak, Sessions answered “I did not have communications with the Russians”, later saying that he was struck by the question and the conversations did not cross his mind. This answer was given on the tenth of January. Later, on the 27th, he said that he “would recuse myself on anything I should recuse myself on. That’s all I can tell you”. In a response to a Washington Post article , he stated that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false”, noting that he did in fact have conversations with Kysliak, but in his Senator role, not his campaign role. Following these allegations, Sessions recused himself from the ongoing investigation on Russian ties to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Democrats now accuse Sessions of perjury as well as calling for him to resign. To be involved in an act of perjury, however, one has to intentionally lie. Proving that he intentionally lied is historically difficult. One can of course draw parallels with Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, who both resigned as a result of lies about their respective communications with Russian officials during the campaign. Jeff Sessions is simply a much more central figure in the Trump administration and thus incomparable.

Most of what can be categorized as ‘Trumpism’ is just ‘Sessionism’ through a photocopier, he was Trump’s megaphone to the ‘angry white Southerner’. Besides this ideological dependency, Trump has taken over part of his staff as well as his network. A Sessions resignation would do Trump more pain then good, contrary to the resignation of Flynn and Manafort.

The chance that Sessions resigns from being attorney general seems low. However, more leaks concerning campaign officials having any contact with the Russians are bound to surface, disrupting his presidency and slowly paving the way to Democrats calling for a special investigator and Trump having his own, personal Watergate. Ignoring that more officials might have had conversations with Russian officials, Trump’s positive stance on Russia will haunt him for the duration of his term. Every move the administration makes that has anything to do with Russia will be treated more carefully than ever, slowing down progress.

In conclusion, a Sessions resignation seems highly unlikely – too bad since the Flynn resignation brought us H.R. McMaster. Although many Republicans have taken positive stances on Russia, some Republican senators – Lindsey Graham, notably – have not adopted this new found love, giving the Democrats the opportunity to call for a special investigator. Judging from Trump’s love for exclusivity, Trump would certainly love being only the second President to quit during his term.