World update: September 11 2018

This evening marks the Islamic New Year so Happy New Year to readers who are celebrating it. I’m going to be out a good chunk of the day so this early/condensed update will have to hold you until tomorrow.



At least 32 people were killed and another 120 wounded Tuesday when a suicide bomber struck a large crowd of protesters outside the city of Jalalabad. The Taliban denied involvement and the attack has the look of an ISIS operation.

The Taliban, meanwhile, say they’re preparing for another round of talks with US officials in Doha. The last set of talks, in July, produced some palpable momentum toward peace talks that has since largely dissipated. Another round, if it happens, could focus on a prisoner swap as a trust-building step.

The United Nations says that the drought in western Afghanistan has displaced more people (275,000) this year than the war has, which is no small feat given that the conflict has remained pretty active. Entire growing seasons’ worth of crops have been lost along with substantial numbers of livestock.

American University professor Tricia Bacon looks at the ups and downs of the Taliban’s past relationship with al-Qaeda and doesn’t sound terribly optimistic that the United States can open some daylight between the two organizations:

There is renewed hope for negotiations since President Donald Trump announced a willingness to engage in direct talks with the Taliban. However, it is hard to imagine the United States being satisfied with a negotiated settlement that does not include the Taliban abdicating al-Qaeda. How much of a stumbling block does this pose?

In my experience, officials working on Afghanistan tend to be more optimistic about the prospects of persuading the Taliban to sever ties with al-Qaeda than those working on counter-terrorism. While the cost-benefit analysis offered above seemingly favors the interpretation of the former, history is with the latter.


According to Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his visit to Islamabad last week that the US will not stand in the way of Pakistan obtaining an International Monetary Fund loan. There has been some concern on Pakistan’s part that their worsening relations with Washington could lead the Trump administration to block an IMF bailout.



Alex Thurston has put together a roundup of news reports about a couple of recent Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria.


Ethiopia and Eritrea reopened their border for the first time since their 1998 war closed it. It is maybe the final step in restoring relations between the two former belligerents and crucially gives landlocked Ethiopia road access to Eritrea’s ports.


At Africa Is a Counrty, Sarah Katz-Lavigne and Jana Hönke argue that the international community’s expansive “conflict mineral” designation is having unintended negative consequences for people in the DRC:

There is a need for systematic evaluation of potential risks to ordinary people’s livelihoods from expanding the “conflict minerals” category. The negative effects reported in Kivu provinces, particularly the loss of employment for tens of thousands to millions of miners, suggest there is cause for concern about similar impacts in southeastern DRC, already in economic difficulty due to low copper prices. The de facto boycott has led to negative consequences for those in eastern DRC who depend on artisanal mining, including loss of incomenegative effects on child mortality and healthcare; and an expansion in illegal activities and smuggling. Evidence from the Kivus points to the disproportionately negative impacts of supply-chain measures on artisanal miners and women in associated economic activities. In southeastern DRC, these groups are already disadvantaged, as multinational corporations have removed tens of thousands of artisanal miners from their concessions.



The Russian military began its Vostok-2018 military exercises this week, its largest-ever military drill involving some 300,000 Russian soldiers as well as Chinese forces (the latter is something of a milestone, since past Vostok war games generally have been meant to prepare for a possible war with China). NATO officials have criticized the war games for a lack of transparency and as a sign of Russia’s aggressive intentions. On a similar note, foreign ministers from three eastern NATO member states–Poland, Romania, and Turkey–met in Bucharest on Tuesday and issued a joint statement condemning Russia’s “repeated violation of NATO airspace, the continued military buildup in Crimea and Kaliningrad” and “continued violation of obligations and commitments on arms control.”


Kosovar Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj told reporters on Tuesday that Kosovo’s government hopes to reach a deal (presumably focused on the much-speculated land swap arrangement) on ending its hostile relations with Serbia by next spring so that both nations can clear their path toward NATO and/or European Union membership. However, Hoxhaj also said that the Kosovar government won’t sign any agreement with Serbia that doesn’t include Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence. That could be a difficult pill for Serbians to swallow.


The European Parliament plans to vote on Wednesday on suspending Hungary’s voting rights within the EU, a move that will test the degree to which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has exhausted the indulgence of his (former?) center-right EU allies:

Mr. Orban is now seen as a threat to Europe’s mainstream leadership, especially the conservative alliance that for years chose to shelter him. Leaders of Europe’s conservative political parties — including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — refrained from reining him in, largely because he was part of their coalition in Brussels, and because they thought they could control him.

Now some leaders in the alliance, known as the European People’s Party, have concluded that was a mistake, and are breaking from Mr. Orban. On Wednesday, the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on whether to suspend Hungary’s voting rights within the European Union — an extreme measure whose outcome will hinge on whether conservatives finally turn against the prime minister.

That vote, if approved, would only be a first step in a showdown with Mr. Orban. Punishing Hungary would also require a vote of the leaders of the European Union’s 28 member states, and approval is far from certain.

The Austrian government, one of Orbán’s supposed illiberal allies, says its representatives will vote against Hungary. That’s probably not a great sign for Orbán. For as much as he rails against the EU, Orbán’s government has benefited tremendously from EU assistance, and his inner circle has especially benefited not that I’m implying anything about corruption, goodness knows I wouldn’t want to do that.


New UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet plans to send a team of investigators to Italy to check out allegations that migrants are being mistreated there. It probably goes without saying that the Italian government has taken this news in stride and with a positive attitude. Interior Minister/de facto head of the Italian government Matteo Salvini has threatened to cut off Italy’s annual UN dues payment, for one thing.


An estimated one million people crowded the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday to demand Catalan independence. While polling continues to show Catalans divided on the issue (and most Barcelona residents opposed to independence), the sight of that many people demonstrating certainly does make an impression:


The International Criminal Court issued a statement on Tuesday saying that it is “undeterred” by sanctions threats from the Trump administration. Presumably this means that it will continue to explore the possibility of making a war crimes case against the US for its actions in Afghanistan.



Brazil’s Workers’ Party is making it official, swapping out ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for Fernando Haddad as its nominee for next month’s presidential election. Lula has been barred from running because of a corruption conviction, and though he still has appeals in the works over that conviction he’s apparently decided that it’s no use trying to get his name back on the ballot.

Ironically, as the prohibitive favorite Lula exits the race, the chances of Brazil electing a leftist president might actually be improving. New polling finds Labor Party candidate Ciro Gomes running in second place behind far right leader Jair Bolsonaro and then defeating Bolsonaro in the runoff. It also finds Haddad’s support jumping from four to nine percent and that’s before the expected appeal from Lula for his supporters to back Haddad. Bolsonaro, who reportedly needs “major surgery” as he recovers from being stabbed at a campaign rally last week, has seen a minor bump in the polls but not enough to seriously improve his fairly bleak runoff chances.


Though the US still can’t establish what caused its diplomats and other personnel to become ill in Cuba and China or even get a good handle on what illness they actually have, US intelligence officials are apparently ready to blame Russia for it. With scientists poking holes in the relatively new theory that a “microwave weapon” of some kind was responsible for the illnesses, those officials are now speculating that it was microwaves plus something else that did the trick. Sounds like a real airtight theory.


For leftists looking for a foreign policy doctrine, former Obama administration official Van Jackson has the answer–neoliberalism:

One of the problems with the left’s principled foreign policy positions is that they resemble something the left has spent a lifetime rallying against: neoliberalism. For the left, the term “neoliberalism” has often had a pejorative association with capitalist empire; a ruling class controlling the global means of production while the rest of us take out loans for our avocado toast. Yet neoliberal foreign policy—especially as understood in the field of international relations—reflects a commitment to democracy promotion, human rights, economic interdependence, multilateralism over unilateralism, the primacy of upholding international commitments and the legitimacy of international institutions like the United Nations. In other words, a neoliberal foreign policy looks strikingly similar to what the left repeatedly advocates. It should thus be unsurprising that some neoliberals are of the political left.

I am no expert on international relations, but apart from rather sloppily connecting neoliberal economics to neoliberal foreign policy when they are at least somewhat separate from one another, this definition–“reflects a commitment to democracy promotion, human rights, economic interdependence, multilateralism over unilateralism, the primacy of upholding international commitments and the legitimacy of international institutions like the United Nations”–is adding a few things that aren’t inherently neoliberal. In foreign policy circles, “neoliberalism” is a reaction to “neorealism,” and mostly focuses on multilateralism and empowering international institutions in contrast to realism’s principle that every state is basically on its own.

The other stuff in Jackson’s definition–democracy and respect for human rights–is supposed to sort of magically happen when you get the rest of the world to embrace free trade and international institutions. This is where neoliberalism the economic school most directly intersects with neoliberalism the foreign policy school, in their shared appreciation for a hands’ off approach to commerce. This is also where neoliberal foreign policy falls apart, and I don’t say that as a matter of opinion but rather of historical fact.

Decades of flogging the miracle of free trade ought to have shown by now that some of its outcomes–in particular its effect on workers in developed countries–produce precisely the opposite of democracy and respect for human rights. Otherwise I’m not sure what the hell Steve Bannon is doing running around Europe these days. The international organizations that most heavily promote a neoliberal foreign policy agenda–the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank–have pushed an agenda heavily centered around austerity, which has led to immiseration, resentment (which usually manifests as racism/xenophobia), and the election of hard right, illiberal governments in Hungary, Italy, Austria, Poland, the United States, and maybe soon in some other fun places like Germany. It’s strengthened illiberal forces in Russia and Turkey, to name just two prominent examples.

There’s nothing inherently leftist about any of this. Indeed a good leftist foreign policy would offer alternatives to this agenda that overcome the huge, inescapable problems it’s created around the world. I would also note here that neoliberal foreign policy, like neorealism, maintains that the nation-state should be the main organizing principle in world affairs. Maybe a leftist alternative would do that as well, but there’s nothing to say it must. Also also, while we’re here, there’s nothing inherently super awesome about international institutions that make them attractive from a left perspective. Leftist international institutions, sure. But the institutions we have now mostly exist to protect the unequal, dysfunctional, center-right, and, yes, neoliberal world order. Nothing lefty about that.

Jackson’s piece raises some other issues with which leftists will have to grapple in terms of crafting a foreign policy, but in trying to convince people that neoliberalism is leftist I think he’s yanking our chains.


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