World update: March 5 2018



The broad realignment of South Asian geopolitics is really going full-bore these days. There’s the burgeoning US-India relationship that coincides with serious problems in the US-Pakistan relationship, and the reverse is happening in Russia’s relations with both countries. The Russia-India relationship remains pretty strong at the moment, but it might not for much longer if Russia’s relations with Islamabad continue to improve as they have been. Russia and Pakistan are negotiating several multi-billion dollar energy deals that will mean big bucks for Russian firms plus an extension of Russian influence in the region. For Pakistan, which already has close relations with China, Russia offers another major power ally to counterbalance its decaying ties with Washington.


This was just developing when I posted last night’s update, but thousands of Kashmiris protested and rioted overnight and into Monday over a shootout late Sunday in which Indian soldiers killed four civilians and two suspected militants in the town of Shopian. Indian authorities had tried to impose a curfew to tamp down on potential unrest, but clearly that didn’t take.


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen isn’t interested in talking with opposition leaders to try to ease Cambodia’s political tensions:

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday rejected a request from opposition leader Sam Rainsy for talks about the country’s political problems, denigrating his archrival as a traitor and a convict.


Hun Sen was responding to a message posted Sunday on Twitter by Sam Rainsy, a founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which called for negotiations to end a political crisis that has quashed many aspects of democracy, with the opposition party dissolved and its members thrown out of parliament.

To be fair, Hun Sen said he’s open to talks in principle, but not with “criminals.” But given that he’s got a habit of criminalizing political opposition, that would seem to rule out any actual negotiations.


A delegation from South Korea visited Pyongyang on Monday to meet with Kim Jong-un in an effort to jump start talks between North and South Korea and North Korea and the United States. Kim reportedly told the envoys that he wants to “vigorously advance” improving ties with Seoul. So that’s nice, I guess. Not to be a downer here, but there’s still no indication that Kim is willing to denuclearize, or that Washington is prepared to talk with him if he doesn’t.



Voters in Sierra Leone will go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a replacement for current President Ernest Bai Koroma. The election will probably turn on economic issues. Koroma leaves office at a time when Sierra Leone is still trying to recover from the 2015 ebola outbreak and a severe global decline in iron prices that impacted one of the country’s main exports.


Africa Is a Country’s Ernest Harsch looks back at the 2014 revolution that ousted Blaise Compaoré, a rare successful popular uprising against a long-time dictator:

Authoritarian rulers elsewhere in Africa have also faced widespread opposition in the streets. Sometimes such mobilizations led indirectly to a ruler’s downfall. For example, popular agitation in Niger culminated in a 2010 military coup that pushed aside an autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja, and opened the way to subsequent elections. And in 2011, street mobilizations in Senegal blocked Abdoulaye Wade’s attempts to subvert the constitution, contributing to his electoral defeat the following year.


Yet, apart from the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this decade, the 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso was a rare instance in Africa of a popular movement that managed to directly topple a sitting government.


Ethiopia’s ruling coalition will likely name a new prime minister this week to replace Hailemariam Desalegn, who announced his resignation last month. There’s a strong possibility that the new PM will be Oromo, a concession to the country’s largest and probably most restive ethnic group, and the most likely contender there would be Abiye Ahmed, the leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization. Whether that will be enough to satisfy the Oromo and reduce the level of popular discontent in that community is another question.


Though the Trump administration has expanded the US campaign against al-Shabab, American University professor Tricia Bacon says that there’s only so much US air power can do when al-Shabab’s resilience is really about the weakness of the Somali government:

Since the Trump administration  increased the military’s authorities to go after al-Shabaab, airstrikes have increased significantly. Along with the 500 U.S. troops deployed to the country, last March the campaign expanded beyond self-defense to include offensive strikes with greater flexibility to target the group and support the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces. The campaign is having a disruptive effect on the group, but has, at best, reached a stalemate. Al-Shabaab’s setbacks have been largely tactical and will remain so unless the Somali government addresses its endemic weaknesses in the realm of security and justice.


Disaffected Robert Mugabe loyalists may be about to abandon the ZANU-PF party. One Mugabe loyalist, Ambrose Mutinhiri, has formed a new party, the New Patriotic Front, motivated by “the unconstitutional and humiliating manner in which President Mugabe was criminally ousted from leadership.” Obviously there’s a decent chance he’s doing this at Mugabe’s behest. NPF plans to stand in elections later this year, but even before that it may try to challenge the legitimacy of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his government.



If you’ve delved into the deeper parts of the online Russia conspiracy fever swamp, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Gerasimov Doctrine. Hannah Gais explained it to me last week if you’re interested, but the upshot is that it’s supposed to describe Russia’s technique of hybrid political warfare used to destabilize enemies and soften up potential targets. Only it doesn’t actually exist. And the reason I say that it because the person who coined the term “Gerasimov Doctrine,” researcher Mark Galeotti, insists that he only meant it as a “snappy title” and a “placeholder,” and says he now regrets having come up with it in the first place.


Well there’s no shortage of thinkpieces about yesterday’s parliamentary election in Italy if you’re into that sort of thing. The primary takeaway, I think, is that people are pissed off. They’re so pissed off that the presumed “winner” of the election was a political party, the Five Star Movement, whose political platform amounts to “politics sucks, LOL.” Five Star finished as by far the largest party in parliament, mostly at the expense of the stuffy center-left and center-right parties. Five Star is anti-establishment for whatever definition of “establishment” you care to offer, so it’s going to have an immediate and very fun time becoming the main establishment party now that most (if not all) roads to a governing coalition have to go through it. Along those lines, suddenly it’s “open” to participating in coalitions after being fundamentally opposed to them as part of its core ideology. The closer the party has gotten to power, the more its once-deeply held positions like opposition to the euro and NATO have been replaced by more nuanced positions that promise, well, not all that much change even though “change” was their big rallying cry.

And if Five Star didn’t win, then the fascists did. That would be the League, really the Northern League though they’ve started deemphasizing the “Northern” part lately. Their coalition, including Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party, did get more votes than Five Star, but only by a hair and Five Star was running on its own. So their claim isn’t great on electoral grounds. But ideologically they have a point. If people are pissed off, then one major thing they’re pissed off at is foreigners. And the League, with its opposition to migrants and the European Union, embodies that sentiment better than any of Italy’s other parties.

The coalition negotiations will take weeks if not months. The easiest paring, Five Star and the League, probably won’t work because both parties believe they should be in charge. The center-left Democratic Party says it won’t enter a coalition with Five Star, and the center-right Forza Italia did so badly that it has little to offer to any perspective coalition partner. So it’s very hard at this point to say who actually “won.” But there’s a clear loser: the European Union. If Italian voters said nothing else yesterday, they definitely told Brussels to go fuck itself. And frankly Brussels brought most of this on itself. Between a common currency that enriches Germany and France while impoverishing most everyone else and a migrant policy that has completely failed and left Italy and Greece holding the bag, the EU is as responsible as anyone else for the way this election turned out.



Outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet wants her last act in office to be starting the process of replacing the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. The new constitution would guarantee several individual rights and allow Chileans to go to court to protect them. Although Bachelet is being replaced by right-winger Sebastián Piñera, if there’s enough support for the new constitution it could be hard for Piñera to oppose it.


Assuming the vote is fair, polling shows that challenger Henri Falcón could unseat Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in May’s election. Even voters who are convinced that Maduro has fixed the electoral process seem prepared to vote just in case:

Still, a recent survey by local pollster Datanalisis said most people identifying themselves as opposition supporters indicated a willingness to vote even under current conditions that they view as rigged. The Feb. 1-14 poll had Falcon, before he announced his candidacy, leading Maduro by more than 12 points. It had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.


US trade representative Robert Lighthizer said on Monday that if progress in NAFTA negotiations remains slow the Trump administration may decide to table them altogether until sometime after Mexico’s general election in July. Lighthizer also implied that Mexico and Canada could escape Donald Trump’s new proposed steel and aluminum tariffs if they agree to renegotiate NAFTA to Trump’s liking.


Speaking of those tariffs, Ryan Cooper of The Week argues that, while the idea of tariffs in principle isn’t nearly as dangerous as the political and business establishment wants to make it out to be, the way Trump has gone about trying to raise them is only going to invite more problems than it might potentially solve:

President Trump sparked another international frenzy when he abruptly announced substantial new tariffs on steel and aluminum, of 25 and 10 percent respectively. Both partisan Democrats and free trade-worshipping neoliberals immediately panicked. “Protectionism” has been a dirty word in elite circles for decades, and that combined with general disgust towards Trump to make the move seem like sheerest madness.


It’s hard to say just what will happen as a result of Trump’s action. But we can say that insofar as he is trying to achieve some kind of positive economic effect, he’s going about it in the worst possible way.

There is undoubtedly a good case for rebalancing international commerce, but risking a trade war is definitely not the way to go about doing so.

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