Europe/Americas update: January 7 2019

Welcome back! As always after an extended break, we will not be recapping everything that happened while I was gone. If I’ve missed a story you think is important, you can always drop me a line and let me know.



At Eurasianet, Igor Torbakov argues that despite their recent Era of Good Feelings, the competing neo-imperialist agendas of the Russian and Turkish governments will inevitably cause them to turn on one another:

Despite their similarities, the likelihood that Turkey and Russia can establish a long-term strategic alliance isn’t high. Both see themselves as empires, and, as a general rule, an empire’s political philosophy is one of universalism and exceptionalism. In other words, empires don’t have friends – they have either enemies or dependencies.

Moreover, an imperial paradigm has traditionally featured the existence of “frontier zones” – buffer territories that are a source of conflict for historical empires. For Turkey and Russia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the Middle East serve as such frontier zones.


Well, Ukraine officially has its own autocephalous Orthodox Church, after the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on Sunday gave the formal Tomos of Autocephaly to Metropolitan Epiphanius of Ukraine. I’m reliably assured, by the way, that the preceding sentence actually makes sense. The move gives Ukrainian Orthodox Church members who have decided to reject the Russian Orthodox Church, to which Ukraine previously belonged before all the–well, you know–a new church so they don’t have to go around calling themselves “noncanonical” anymore. It’s likely to exacerbate tensions between Kiev and Moscow and to alienate the many Ukrainian Orthodox Church members, mostly in the country’s breakaway eastern regions, who did not and will not break communion with Moscow.


Though it seemed like France’s “yellow vest” protests were beginning to lose steam prior to Christmas, Saturday’s iteration of the weekly demonstrations appeared to kick things back up a few notches:

Thousands of “yellow-vest” protesters took to France’s streets Saturday, some clashing with riot police, in a renewed show of force against the government after demonstrations flagged during the holiday season.

A peaceful march along the Seine river turned violent when riot police blocked hundreds of protesters outside the Musée d’Orsay. Groups of demonstrators launched projectiles at police, who used tear gas to disperse them. Video posted to social media showed two policemen being dragged to the ground and repeatedly kicked when a group of protesters tried to force their way through a police cordon, blocking access to a bridge across the Seine. A barge on the river was set on fire.

As darkness fell, people burned scooters and bins along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, an upscale area south of the Seine that had been spared the brunt of previous yellow-vest protests.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux had to be evacuated from his office when a group of people tried to break into the building using construction machinery.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who had to figure the worst of this protest movement was behind him, now enters 2019 struggling to maintain his presidency in the face of a French public that really seems to be over his bullshit.


One thing that definitely did not happen while I was gone was Theresa May finally figuring out how to govern Britain. She said over the weekend that she’s still planning to hold the vote on her Brexit package during the week of January 14, but there’s growing speculation that she’s going to postpone the vote yet again while she continues to pursue “assurances” from the European Union. Her chances of obtaining those “assurances” would probably be improved somewhat if she could coherently explain to literally anybody what the hell she’s talking about, but as far as I can tell she cannot. It seems at this point that what she’s going to get from Brussels is a pinky swear that the EU will definitely fast track negotiations on a durable free trade agreement between the UK and the EU after Brexit. But that’s not a guarantee of anything. It’s not even a guarantee that those talks will actually be successful, let alone that they’ll go quickly.

The British public remains, as ever, wowed by May’s leadership prowess. A whopping 18 percent of British voters support her Brexit plan, against 59 percent who oppose it, and a plurality of 41 percent would like to see a second Brexit referendum. In the unlikely event such a referendum were held, a plurality of 46 percent say they would vote to remain in the EU against 39 percent who would vote to leave.



One of the many wonderful things that happened while I was away was that fascist Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated as Brazil’s new president. While we’ll undoubtedly get to see all the wonderful things Bolsonaro has in store for Brazil over the coming weeks and months, Paul Pillar wrote about one of the ways his presidency is likely to screw over the whole of human civilization:

Bolsonaro has long made clear his intention to destroy more of the forest, supposedly in the name of economic development and with visions of ever more cattle ranches and soybean farms. He has wasted no time in using his powers to that end. On his first full day in office, he issued an executive order giving the agriculture ministry authority to dispose of lands claimed by indigenous peoples. This measure clearly is a first step toward greater exploitation of the Amazon region by agribusiness. Besides reflecting Bolsonaro’s lack of concern for the environment, it also reflected his disdain for the native peoples of the region. He sees no value in protecting their cultures and way of life.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. It is an enormous carbon sink that breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out twenty percent of the world’s oxygen. There is no other single ecosystem that is as important in preventing a runaway planetary greenhouse effect. Although parts of the rainforest are in other South American countries, sixty percent of it is in Brazil.


The Guatemalan government announced on Monday that it’s expelling the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and gave the commission 24 hours to vacate the country. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales was a fan of the commission right up until it started investigating his administration for alleged corruption, at which point he turned against it. The UN says it rejects Morales’s decision but apart from expressing its outrage I’m not sure what the UN can actually do about it. The US could step in, but as Morales is a right-winger with an authoritarian streak let’s say it’s unlikely that the Trump administration would want to do anything to oppose him.


So it turns out that the “sonic attack that’s been sickening US and Canadian diplomats in Cuba was probably crickets. No, really:

The US embassy in Havana more than halved its staff in 2017 when diplomats complained of headaches, nausea and other ailments after hearing penetrating noises in their homes and nearby hotels.

The mysterious wave of illness fuelled speculation that the staff had been targeted by an acoustic weapon. It was an explanation that appeared to gain weight when an audio recording of a persistent, high-pitched drone made by US personnel in Cuba was released to the Associated Press.

But a fresh analysis of the audio recording has revealed what scientists in the UK and the US now believe is the true source of the piercing din: it is the song of the Indies short-tailed cricket, known formally as Anurogryllus celerinictus.

Huh, how about that. Now wait a minute, you’re already thinking, even if this is true doesn’t it just mean that the sound and the attack are unrelated but that there was still some kind of attack on those diplomats? Didn’t doctors actually diagnose many of them with demonstrable brain injuries? Well, maybe not. The University of Pennsylvania report that supposedly identified those demonstrable brain injuries was pretty well picked apart a few months ago by a group of doctors specializing in the brain and nervous system. So it’s quite possible there was no attack at all.


Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who announced his retirement last month effective February 28, was canned on January 1 instead. Donald Trump opted to fire Mattis after somebody explained to him that Mattis’s resignation letter was actually a criticism of Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria. Trump either hadn’t read the letter or hadn’t understood it, or let’s say he didn’t read it but wouldn’t have understood it anyway. Mattis has been replaced on an interim basis by his former deputy, ex-Boeing executive Patrick Shannon, which I guess means we can finally streamline “military-industrial complex” down to just “complex.”

Finally, I would urge you to read this excellent essay by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz in which he argues that the only way to advance a real left foreign policy is to jettison that fairy tale of “American Exceptionalism” once and for all and recognize that, when it comes to foreign policy, the United States primary motivation is and always has been to advance the interests of its corporate elite:

Acknowledging this reality does not require one to deny America’s various contributions to global well-being. It doesn’t even (necessarily) refute the notion that America has been a more benevolent hegemon than previous imperial powers. Our nation’s many crimes do not erase the past decades of peace in Europe, or poverty reduction in Asia. That American foreign policy is principally driven by corporate interests is not inconsistent with the idea that it has produced some positive-sum outcomes. The Marshall Plan created highly profitable markets for American exporters and investors; it also helped birth unprecedented prosperity in Japan and Western Europe.

But the fact that American exceptionalism is a myth does have important implications for anyone who wishes to bend reality in its direction. Put simply, if one wishes to reform an institution, it’s best not to begin by wildly misconstruing how it works.

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