World update: March 26 2018

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.



The Afghan government has recalled its ambassador to Pakistan over a comment from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday that suggested it would be better for the peace process if the Afghan government dissolved itself in favor of some kind of interim government. Khan isn’t wrong–the Taliban refuses to talk to the current Afghan government, so replacing it with something else would almost certainly boost the peace process–but there’s a legitimate question about whether the Afghan government should dissolve itself to appease the Taliban, and anyway it’s not really appropriate for Khan to make that determination. The Pakistani government says Khan’s comments were “taken out of context,” of course, because that’s what you say in a situation like this.


According to status reports the two countries have submitted to the United Nations Security Council, Russia sent home roughly two-thirds of the 30,000 North Korean expats who were working there in 2018, while China sent home more than half of the estimated 80,000 North Korean expats it was hosting. All countries are expected, under a 2017 Security Council resolution, to repatriate all North Korean workers by the end of this year. Remittances from expat workers may be North Korea’s main source of foreign currency and so this repatriation is a major component of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Pyongyang.

While I was out sick last week, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against a couple of Chinese companies that have allegedly been helping North Korea evade sanctions. On Friday, Donald Trump announced, via Twitter of course, that he’d “ordered the withdrawal” of those sanctions. Or so it seemed, anyway. The administration later said that Trump wasn’t withdrawing the just-announced sanctions but was withdrawing another round of sanctions that were going to be imposed. Trump wasn’t undermining his own administration, he was signaling future plans. Only the thing is, there was no planned future round of sanctions, as it turns out, and Trump really was withdrawing the sanctions that had already been announced. The administration lied, in other words. Try not to be shocked.



The ongoing crisis over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s legitimacy took an unexpected turn on Tuesday, when Ahmed Gaed Salah, chief of staff of the powerful Algerian army, asked/suggested/more or less ordered that Bouteflika be declared medically unfit for office under Article 102 of the Algerian constitution. Bouteflika is undeniably unfit for office, and most likely has been since his 2013 stroke, and if he’s now lost the army it’s hard to see how he can remain in power. Had Algeria’s ruling clique gone down this road weeks ago it probably would have been enough to appease protesters angry over Bouteflika’s planned fifth term in office. But now it’s not so clear. Many protesters seem to have moved beyond their initial complaint about Bouteflika and may hold out for more fundamental changes to the Algerian political system.


A car bombing in Mogadishu on Tuesday killed at least one person and left another wounded. Al-Shabab was presumably responsible.



Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party is one of the most xenophobic in Europe, and yet its economy depends on immigrant labor. The solution? Bringing in hundreds of thousands of migrants from Ukraine while pretending those migrants don’t exist. The problem is that those Ukrainians alone aren’t enough, and many of them would like to move on to bigger and better things:

“There is no ownership of the issue by the government,” said Anna Wicha, a director at the Adecco Group, one of the largest employment agencies in Poland. “You ask how many Ukrainians are working here and they will say 500,000. But it is more than two million. And many may be going to Germany.”

For now, the government lacks a long-term strategy to expand the labor pool. Many experts and some opposition politicians in Poland say the situation will only be resolved if political leaders soften their resistance to migrants and embrace plurality. But at the national level, even talking about immigration can be politically lethal.


The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi contrasts the outcomes of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visits to Italy, where he and his Belt and Road Initiative were warmly welcomed but where he concluded only a paltry 2.5 billion euros in agreements, and France, where Emmanuel Macron pushed back against Chinese trade practices but came away with around 40 billion euros worth of deals:

The lesson from these two widely disparate visits is that embracing China is less lucrative than some might imagine – and, conversely, firm (but still diplomatic) pushback on issues of concern is less costly than some might fear. It also drives home the reality that a BRI deal is more symbol than substance, and no guarantee of major increases in Chinese investments. This is something Poland, one of the earliest European supporters of the Belt and Road, found out the hard way, after its backing failed to yield the expected boom in Chinese funds. The truth is that Chinese investments in Italy, including in ports and other infrastructure, predated Saturday’s BRI agreement – and don’t look likely to increase substantially after it.

On the flip side, none of the largest recipients of Chinese investments in Europe have joined the Belt and Road. As of 2017, according to the China Power Project at CSIS, the top European destinations for Chinese funds were Germany ($1.6 billion), the Netherlands ($1.6 billion), the United Kingdom ($1.5 billion), and France ($1.4 billion). Germany and France, in particular, have also been among the most outspoken critics of China’s trade practices and human rights records. Clearly, refraining from criticizing China isn’t necessary for winning big deals – provided your market is attractive enough.


A North Korean dissident group called “Free Joseon,” which seeks the ouster of Kim Jong-un, has claimed responsibility for last month’s attack on the North Korean embassy in Madrid. It then says it shared the information it acquired with the FBI, which is certain to raise suspicions that the US was involved in the incident all along. It’s unclear whether the FBI subsequently cooperated with Spanish authorities but the Spaniards apparently believe that the embassy attackers went to the United States afterward, and the Spanish government may try to have them extradited.


Theresa May’s offer to resign in return for supporting her Brexit plan may be swaying Tory hardliner Boris Johnson over to her side. That and, reportedly, Johnson is worried that Brexit may not happen at all if May’s deal can’t get through parliament. Johnson’s support would certainly help May, but it’s far from clear that it would be enough to get her plan approved.



The State Department on Tuesday cut $210,000 from the US contribution to the OAS over the group’s support for abortion rights. It’s a paltry sum, but the symbolism is good for Mike Pompeo’s political ambitions. The move reflects the Trump administration’s expansion of the “Mexico City policy,” one of the many wonderful legacies of the Reagan administration whereby any international institution that so much as acknowledges that abortion is a thing can lose US funding as a result. The fact that this policy routinely puts women’s heathcare at risk around the world and probably leads to more, not less, abortions–just of the illicit and far more dangerous kind–is of course not a factor in the administration’s decision-making.


Venezuela’s newest blackout has now extended to 21 of the country’s 23 states plus Caracas, though there were signs later in the day that power might be returning to parts of the country including the capital. Nicolás Maduro’s government continues to blame opposition “saboteurs” backed by the US for its power woes, but still hasn’t offered any evidence to back up its claims.


Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Monday said he’d written a letter to King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis, asking Spain to apologize for its colonial treatment of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. That request has not gone down very well in Madrid, where politicians across the political spectrum have called it an “affront” and “offense” to Spain and her people. I hope they’ll be OK. As terrible as this affront must be, it could be worse–Mexico could have colonized Spain instead.


While I was sick, historian Hal Brands vomited up a ridiculous piece about how leftists should love a big military budget on account of how the US military defends liberal values, which is nice, and also too big military budgets mean jobs and free healthcare and upward mobility for frequently disadvantaged groups in American society, and don’t we all love that? Fortunately for all of us, New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz gave it the burial it richly deserved:

More broadly, the fact that the military serves as an oasis of social democracy — within a nation whose welfare state and labor protections are the pity of the wealthy world — is a testament to progressives’ failures, not their triumphs. The historian Greg Grandin renders this point vividly in his new book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. In it, Grandin argues that national expansion — first, through the westward march of the frontier, and then through overseas empire building— has long served as a means of dissipating the forces of class conflict (and thus, social reform), by both providing a path to upward mobility for a select subset of the population, and projecting internal social animosities outward. In our republic’s earliest days, working-class whites could secure property — and thus, economic autonomy and the franchise — by moving to the frontier, and assisting in the state’s project of Indian removal. Centuries later, “military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility … with the GI bill of rights providing education, medical care, and home ownership to veterans.”

But if imperial expansion facilitated democratization and social progress, it also quarantined those goods, and eventually undermined them. Nineteenth-century elites viewed the frontier as a “safety valve” for class antagonism in the industrializing East, providing disaffected (white) workers with an individualistic remedy for their plight. Today, America’s globe-spanning empire not only provides its working class with some decent jobs, but also access to relatively cheap consumer goods and abundant credit, both of which serve to camouflage declining social mobility and skyrocketing inequality. Meanwhile, such means of displacing social conflict always, eventually, fail on their own terms. Beyond constituting a genocide, centuries of frontier wars with Native Americans also fostered our nation’s most regressive tendencies, including its obsession with firearms and its racial paranoia. The “demonic, destructive suction tube” of Vietnam eventually reversed direction, fueling polarization and militant nativism within our own borders. And the past 17 years of war in the Middle East have brought home pervasive anti-Muslim bigotry. In 2002, just 25 percent of Americans told Pew Research that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its adherents; by the time Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency, that figure had doubled.

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