Europe/Americas update: March 25 2019

Hello and welcome to our next-to-last week here at WordPress! I’m packing things up and moving to Substack starting next week, when I’ll be posting in both places by way of transitioning to the new site. I’m also, in case you haven’t noticed, returning from an unplanned week away due to the flu. As with all extended absences around here I’ll be mostly starting fresh today rather than trying to recap everything that happened while I was gone. I’m still not 100%, so please bear with me this week.



Special Counsel Robert Mueller completed his investigation into Donald Trump’s alleged Russian-involved campaign malfeasance on Friday and…well, the less said about that the better. Mueller didn’t, apparently, find any criminal collusion between Trump, or anyone close to him, and the Russian government in trying to rig the 2016 election, though we don’t really know what he did find because Trump’s Justice Department isn’t telling. Regardless, the Russian government–never one to miss an opportunity to troll–said on Monday that it’s ready to improve relations with Washington now, though obviously it will be up to the US to take the first step. The Russians maintain that they had no involvement in the election.

Though he’s a sprightly 66, a full 12 years younger than now-retired Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Vladimir Putin is probably watching Nazarbayev’s transition from president to ex-president with some interest. The Russian president’s second and therefore final term ends in 2024, and in lieu of parachuting into the prime minister’s job for a term like he did the last time term limits forced him from office, he’s looking for a more sustainable gimmick to allow him to hang on to power. Nazarbayev will continue to effectively run Kazakhstan as the head of its ruling political party, the head of its national security council, and under the honorific “leader of the nation,” which parliament bestowed on him in 2010, while he oversees the succession to the heir of his choice. Putin could easily create a job for himself, like the national security council thing, that allows him to retain authority and pick a successor, but he’s going to want to see how it works for Nazarbayev before he commits to anything. If it begins to look like Nazarbayev is losing his grip on power now that he’s not in the presidency anymore, despite his vast personal authority, then Putin may have to adjust his plans.


Television comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy remains the frontrunner in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election later this month. New polling puts him at 20.7 percent, far ahead of incumbent Petro Poroshenko at 11 percent and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 8.1 percent. Of course, 20.7 percent isn’t nearly enough for Zelenskiy to avoid the April 21 runoff, and it’s entirely possible he’ll get stomped by a Ukrainian electorate terrified of handing power to a comedian. On the other hand, if he’s facing the deeply unpopular Poroshenko, a sizable portion of the electorate may also be terrified of giving him another term in office.


The European People’s Party, the center-right bloc that is the largest group in the European parliament, has decided to suspend Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party indefinitely. The suspension is mostly over Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s frequently venomous criticisms of the European Union (including his fellow EPP members) and the ethics charges surrounding his handling of EU aid money. It will likely see Fidesz leave the EPP, as Orbán’s chief of staff said his party would quit the alliance rather than suffer the indignity of a suspension.


While I was out, environmental lawyer and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová won the first round of Slovakia’s presidential election on March 16, with 40.6 percent of the vote. That puts her in a strong position to win the runoff on March 30 against Maroš Šefčovič, an independent aligned with the country’s ruling Smer party, who won less than 19 percent of the vote. The Slovakian presidency is fairly powerless, but Čaputová’s win would nevertheless represent a repudiation of the country’s political establishment. At the same time, though, she’s pro-European and ideologically left of center, so she also represents a repudiation of populist right-wing nationalism.


Emmanuel Macron hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday and the two men completed over 40 billion euros worth of business deals. But Macron also offered some criticisms of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, arguing that it has to include expanded access for foreign companies into the Chinese market and reforms in China’s business market. The BRI is a problem for Europe, which views China as both a competitor and a potential economic windfall, and Macron is trying to create some kind of EU consensus on the program where none currently exists.


How well has Brexit been going while I’ve been sick? So well that British Prime Minister Theresa May is now reportedly offering to resign if it will get hardliners in her Conservative party to back her Brexit agreement. So in other words, it’s going great! Last week, May approached the EU with a request to delay the Brexit deadline from March 29 to June 30, a request the EU promptly denied. Brussels countered with an offer to delay Brexit until May 22–provided parliament approved May’s Brexit deal by the end of this month. If parliament doesn’t approve it, then the deadline becomes April 12.

Which means it looks like Britain will be leaving the EU on April 12, because at this point even May herself has conceded she doesn’t have the votes to pass her agreement. And with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party–whose support is keeping May’s minority government in office–rejecting her personal appeals for support, it’s hard to see how she’ll get the votes even if her promise to quit does win over all the Tory hardliners (which it probably won’t). Parliament is likely to vote, if it hasn’t already, to “take control” of the Brexit process from May, which means parliament is still operating under the delusion that there’s any part of this process that’s still in the UK’s control at all. That would mean that if parliament can somehow reach a majority, of any composition (meaning including Labour votes), for any Brexit plan, May would be obliged to try to carry it out. But hey, the EU still gets a say here, so good luck with that.

May could end all of this by just saying “fuck it” and letting the UK roll out of the EU without a deal on April 12. Ironically that might save her job even as it throws the UK economy into turmoil. Parliament has voted to reject a “no deal” Brexit, but again that’s parliament operating under the delusion that it’s still in control. It’s not.



Venezuela is under another major blackout, this time cutting power to at least 14 of the country’s 23 states plus Caracas. Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez claimed on Monday that the outage was caused by an “attack” on a major power transmission line, but while plausible there’s no evidence that such an attack has taken place as far as I know. It’s only been a couple of weeks since Venezuela recovered from a nationwide blackout that threatened food supplies, water quality, and medical care. It’s unclear how long this one might last.

In what came as an extremely unwelcome development for the Trump administration, Russia sent 100 soldiers to Venezuela on Monday. Both Russian and Venezuelan officials say the soldiers are there “to discuss equipment maintenance, training and strategy,” but as far as Washington is concerned they’re there to signify Russian interference in US regime change plans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday and told him that the US “will not stand idly by” while Russia interferes in the internal affairs of a Western Hemisphere country, which as everybody knows is our job. Lavrov responded by telling Pompeo to quit trying to cause a coup.


Finally, I know this is old (but in my defense I had planned on running it before I got sick), but Stephen Walt argues that the polarization of US domestic politics is beginning to pose a serious risk in terms of foreign policy as well:

Partisan politics, one sometimes still hears, are supposed to “stop at the water’s edge.” Domestic political quarrels might be intense and occasionally personal, but Americans are supposed to temper their disagreements and link arms when dealing with the outside world.

This notion was always a bit of an exaggeration—if not an outright myth—even in the heyday of the fabled “Cold War consensus.” The supposed need to suppress partisan differences didn’t prevent nasty accusations about “who lost China?” in the 1940s and early 1950s, along with angry debates over the war in Korea, the broader phenomenon of McCarthyism, the supposed “missile gap” of the late 1950s, or the deep divisions that emerged during the Vietnam War. Nor do I recall a lot of bipartisan restraint in the late 1970s—when Republicans attacked former President Jimmy Carter over everything from Iran to the Panama Canal—or the 1980s, when Democrats accused former President Ronald Reagan’s administration of a cavalier approach toward nuclear war and giving illegal support to right-wing death squads in Central America. Moreover, too much consensus can be as harmful as deep disagreement. If the foreign-policy elite becomes wedded to a bunch of bad ideas and to a flawed grand strategy, the result is likely to be a protracted series of failures. You know: like the past 25 years.

That said, there’s no question that the United States is at a level of political polarization unseen for many decades. Most of the attention to this phenomenon has focused on its effects on America’s internal politics, and some observers are clearly worried that the core institutions of the country might be at risk—understandable, given President Donald Trump’s open hostility towards some of these institutions, his apparent fondness for authoritarians, and the emergence of something resembling “state media” (i.e., Fox News). Less attention has been paid, however, to the impact that hyperpolarization could have on U.S. foreign policy. Apart from an excellent essay by Ken Schultz of Stanford University, this topic just hasn’t received a lot of attention. But it should.

The upshot is that the more polarized things get, the less continuity one can expect in foreign policy from presidential administration to presidential administration. There’s always some discontinuity, of course, but now the US isn’t even abiding by its international agreements anymore. Moreover, the two parties aren’t even dealing with the same narrative of past foreign policy failures–on Iraq, as Walt says, Democrats believe the failure was the war itself, while Republicans are now convinced it was the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw. On top of all of this, the uglier US politics gets the less appealing all those things the US claims to value (democracy, civil liberties, etc.) look to outsiders.

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