The highly anticipated U.S.-China summit held in Florida this past week was upstaged by President Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, but the two events aren’t totally unrelated. The decision to hit Bashar al-Assad is seen by many observers as a signal to a defiant North Korea (and by extension, its ally, China) that Trump is willing to use military force to get what he wants.
Yet the president’s tone on China has moderated rather dramatically since he was a candidate in last year’s election campaign. And as the two countries exchange diplomatic platitudes, it seems unlikely that a trade war, or any kind of negative escalation for that matter, is on the horizon.
Trump campaigned on the promise that he’d label China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office. That didn’t happen. He also constantly brought up China as one of the major reasons for the outsourcing of U.S. jobs. This and related issues may eventually be discussed, but the summit at Mar-a-Lago seemed to produce (publicly, at least) little more than a 100-day plan for trade talks, along with some nice words.
This is a sharp contrast to Trump’s tone even earlier this year, when he tweeted, “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”
The president’s latest post-summit remark on the U.S.-China trade relationship—“Only time will tell”—seems an apt description for his overall China strategy, as his administration thus far hasn’t been known for predictable patterns of international behavior. Dealing with China seems to have reinforced this reputation of unpredictability, though in a much more subdued way. It’s probably not entirely wrong to interpret this as a signal of Trump’s learning curve when it comes to dealing with the world.
The U.S. imported $480 billion worth of Chinese goods last year, while selling just $170 billion worth of exports to China. This makes China the biggest contributor to America’s trade deficit (about 60 percent). That the 100-day trade talks will address this issue first and foremost is significant. A large trade deficit usually goes hand-in-hand with a small manufacturing sector, which connects with Trump’s promise to address the outsourcing of jobs.
According to David Dollar at the Brookings Institution, “Between 2000 and 2007, U.S. manufacturing jobs fell sharply, from 16.9 million to 13.6 million. The 2008 financial crisis pushed the number lower, to 11.2 million, although the number has since been fairly stable.” Dollar notes that up to 40 percent of these job losses can be traced back to the huge influx of Chinese goods into the U.S. after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. And though Trump threatened a whopping 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, it’s important to note that extreme protectionism hasn’t been shown to produce a smaller trade deficit.
China has agreed to restructure the current trade relationship in order to reduce its surplus as a way of dealing with inflation back home. Also, according to the Financial Times, “China will offer the Trump administration better market access for financial sector investments and US beef exports to help avert a trade war.”
None of this validates the kind of inevitable confrontation that Trump’s typical on-the-campaign-trail rhetoric seemed to forebode. And even though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did call the negotiations “frank,” the broader implication of Trump’s first meeting with China seems to be that the administration, though terribly unpredictable and often reckless, is ready to demonstrate some measure of moderation when it comes to foreign affairs.
The ironic thing is that despite Trump’s confrontational words, China has actually routinely intervened recently through its central bank to keep the yuan high, which makes its exports more expensive. It would be in the U.S. national interest to extend this. More importantly, the Trump administration should, like every other administration, try to negotiate for better access to Chinese consumers. This means prying open sectors like telecommunications and transportation, which aren’t open for foreign investment.
The other area that the U.S. should focus on is China’s trade policies and conduct in relation to intellectual property. American companies doing business in China are constantly pressured into sharing insights and knowledge with Chinese counterparts. Even though this practice is banned under WTO rules, there aren’t many effective ways to prosecute this kind of behavior.
The latest summit has given very limited signals when it comes to the tenor of the Trump administration’s China strategy. But it seems that the focus thus far has been the trade deficit and little else.
Yet, as Peking University’s Michael Pettis notes, deficits are usually a sign of a deeper problem related to patterns of investment. Flows in trade, Pettis points out, are a result of flows in capital. Foreign money coming into the U.S. has helped facilitate the deficit by changing the economy. The amount of money that the Chinese have been saving in the U.S. is significant because it results in a surplus in capital, which then produces a decrease in exports (thus the deficit). China’s trade advantage is due in large part to its decreasing consumption. That’s how it racks up savings, which it then deposits into the U.S. Chinese households earn very little relative to GDP, which results in this low level of consumption.
So instead of focusing solely on the trade relationship with China, the Trump administration should reexamine the way it has encouraged foreign investment—a term that’s always enjoyed a positive connotation in the neoliberal age. This is very counterintuitive, particularly since Trump has already said that he welcomes foreign investment from Japan and China. Again, this would just help increase the trade deficit and thus possibly result in a loss of jobs.
A change in the U.S.-China trade relationship would mean a change in many years of exchange in both capital and goods. It’s unclear whether the Trump administration actually sees this and is willing to follow through at the negotiating table. The answer is probably not, which is another signal that for all the tough talk, Trump’s China strategy will actually be an extension of business as usual.
Steven Zhou is a writer and analyst based in Toronto, Canada.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States this week is the sort of public relations opportunity that normally bolsters the Communist Party’s stature back home. Yet given a nearly 40 percent drop in China’s stock markets in the last few months, there’s hardly been a time in recent years when the country’s international reputation has been so widely doubted and questioned. Moreover, this poor economic performance means that the Communist party’s vice-like grip on power may soon be shaken—or at least confronted by an unhappy and much poorer Chinese middle class.
President Xi has long championed the “Chinese Dream,” which unlike its American counterpart, connects the fate of national leaders with the average worker’s ability to achieve affluence. Since the days of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leadership has portrayed itself as the only political entity with enough resolve and steadiness to bring the country into a century of profit and prosperity. And as long as money flowed into the pockets of a good portion of Chinese investors, businessmen, and professionals, the one-party state’s claim to rule has been met with little effective or widespread opposition.
With the steep drop in stocks, the government has tried to control and redirect the market. The markets have been pumped up for months by a stimulus package aimed at getting prices back to pre-crash levels. This has included lending billions of dollars to brokerage firms across the country (so they can buy up stocks) and police raids of investment firms, in which fund managers are forced to stop dumping and short selling stocks. The regime has even arrested hundreds of investment firm executives and finance journalists in an effort to blame the crash on media “rumors,” rampant insider trading, and outside meddling from Western governments.
The party also attempts to protect some Chinese sectors from direct competition—even inside the country–through a giant web of state-owned enterprises, which flood the market with an avalanche of cheap products. These state interventions essentially force domestic and international prices down. Yet investors anticipate that these programs won’t last forever, and they aren’t sticking around long enough to permanently lift prices.
Thus none of the regime’s heavy-handed measures seem to have eased investor fears. If anything, they have further eroded the party’s reputation as a steady force in times of crises, one formerly never prone to overreaction or paranoia.
Meanwhile, the Chinese middle class seems nervous, and for good reason. Credit Suisse, a Swiss financial services company, notes that a whopping 80 percent of China’s urban population owns some type of equity—and collectively have about 30 percent of their cash tied up in stocks. The recent crash has put a serious dent in their pockets, and the state-owned media isn’t exactly known for giving trustworthy financial advice.
This is why many Chinese are turning to apps like WeChat, a popular platform for self-styled financial gurus to trumpet their own “10 ways survive a bad economy” and the like. WeChat isn’t completely immune to state-control and censorship, but it still presents a certain level of information and discussion that doesn’t occur in many other places in China.
This trend of seeking alternatives to the state-preferred media represents a long-existing thirst in China for more accurate reports about their own society and the world. As long as the communist party can continue portraying itself as able to generate wealth for average workers, it will continue to dominate Chinese politics.
But cracks in this image mean cracks in the party’s credibility and reputation. Having prided itself on resourcefulness during hard times, the regime is now failing to stabilize the Chinese economy. Suddenly the party’s political prospects seem more uncertain.
If the ruling party fails to stop capital flight and millions of Chinese lose their investments, they may blame the government for their misfortune. Given just how much state control there is in China’s economy, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. And if this kind of frustration and anger is sustained, then the current leadership’s reputation—as the only political entity capable of facilitating the “Chinese Dream”—will certainly suffer.
People will begin asking questions, and not because they’ve changed their mind about how their country should be governed. Changes in China’s political class may come because the people in charge didn’t deliver the money and profit that they promised they would.
This week, President Xi may try to reassure American leaders that Chinese markets will fully recover. Yet more than ever, his promises would seem to depend on economic factors that even the long arm of the Chinese state cannot control.
Steven Zhou is a writer and analyst based in Toronto, Canada. He is a regular contributor to the CBC News website, and his writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera English.
Criticism of Islam has become a staple of contemporary politics as observers and practitioners alike wrestle with the myriad implications of Muslims living in the post-9/11 West. For the most part, one could argue with great force that the social panic generated by current fears have been “much ado about nothing,” as Muslims have not shown themselves to be an existential threat to their civilizational counterparts.
That’s not to say that no one can or should criticize Islam, as many have. The problem is whether or not such criticism stems from true understanding or total conjecture. Sadly, the latter has been much prevalent, and the culprits aren’t always raving Christian fundamentalists who, in depicting Islam as a “Satanic religion,” prefer an Armageddon-style showdown between faiths. Rather, it’s arguable that some of the most unfair and ignorant assessments of Islam and Muslims have come from those who label themselves as “progressive.”
The attack on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a horrid and barbaric response to some of worst, most unfair “criticisms” of Islam. The cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad are meant as a provocation, as was the ensuing massacre which left a dozen people dead. The magazine is now being lionized as a platform that’s been at the forefront of free speech guardianship. A look through its so-called satirical treatment of Muslim figures and it’s quite obvious that the outlet’s top priority when it comes to Islam is to offend and provoke—none of which are crimes, let alone offenses punishable by death. There’s a difference between having one’s expression being protected by free speech principles and actually being a defender of such principles. All of Charlie Hebdo’s writings and cartoons deserve protection (even though their management has fired cartoonists before for anti-Semitism), the framework used for their (mis)interpretation of Islam is awfully similar to those used by the far right.
Fittingly, last year’s polls show Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s ultra-right party, as the leading presidential candidate. Le Pen has wasted no time in linking the Charlie Hebdo attack to immigration, something she’s vowing to crack down on, all the while emphasizing the “religious” dimension of the massacre, and even calling for a referendum on whether to bring back the death penalty. Given all their differences, it’s almost strange that part of the left finds itself aligned with ultra-rightists when it comes to assessing Muslims and their religion.
Take Michael Moore’s recent defense of the odious Bill Maher, host of “Real Time,” who, along with Sam Harris, faced off against actor Ben Affleck on Maher’s show, setting off a firestorm of Internet commentary. Moore, a prominent progressive, argues that Maher shouldn’t be vilified for his harsh criticisms of Islam, and portrays his friend’s insults as being limited to the bashing of “crazy people professing to be Muslim.” One need not look all that far to identify the misrepresentation here of Maher’s vitriol, which hardly ever bothers to distinguish between traditional Islamic beliefs and extremist misinterpretations of the faith. The truth is that those who perpetuate ISIS or al-Qaeda-like violence in the name of Islam are very small in number. The vast majority of orthodox Sunnis, who make up most of the world’s Muslim population, fall within the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which is divided up into four main schools of thought (among others), none of which permit the killing of innocent people.
Within this huge corpus of scriptural interpretation can be found laws that govern essentially every important aspect of life (marriage, commerce, jihad, etc.), and though there’s much overlap, the schools recognize each other’s positions and the reality that there’s much room for interpretation when it comes to God’s words, as well as the actions of His messenger (known as hadiths or “Prophetic traditions”). The most “liberal” interpretations of certain verses or hadiths can be found within the existing body of Sunni orthodoxy. Yet, progressives who see monotheistic religion as a relic of the medieval past essentialize Islam in a way that doesn’t recognize its internal diversity. Perceiving the Islamic tradition as one, big, monolith akin to a desktop computer from the 1980s, they call for a “reformation” within Islam so the religion can update its hardware, making it more palatable to the modern world.
The analogy here is obviously with the Christian Reformation associated with Martin Luther, who some progressives misinterpret as a solely democratizing figure, eliminating the middlemen priests so believers can interpret scripture for themselves. What they fail to note is that present-day manifestations of Christian fundamentalism derive their origins from the consequences of the Reformation (which also involved a good deal of bloodletting). Seeing this Protestant transformation as inherently “progressive” in its “democratizing” effects, the logic is now applied to Muslims and to Islam, religious content be damned.
Even a scholar like Cornel West, who has consistently argued against some of Maher’s caricatures of Islam, has often talked about Muslims having to develop what he calls “Prophetic Islam.” The term sounds pretty and comes from West’s desire to see an Islam that takes up causes of justice, but the underlying assumption is that the religion needs to wake up to some sort of modern condition that demands inherent change. It’s ultimately a proposition borne out of “progressive” ignorance, blindly assuming that Islam doesn’t have the tools to engage with the world that preserves both tradition and the rights of others. The truth is that Islam isn’t quite as amenable to reform as its monotheistic cousins. In a way, it sees itself as a religion that came to reform Judeo-Christian sectarianism.
In Western modernity’s virtual casting aside of faith, the necessity of having to understand religions prior to issuing criticism also seems to have gone out the window. This is exacerbated when it comes to the post-9/11 scramble to make sense of the Islamic tradition and how it ought to comport to modern sensibilities. Since secular modernity and/or liberalism are portrayed as the default settings of contemporary Western societies, then, the argument goes, it’s reasonable and logical to expect older religious traditions to conform to its demands. There’s no sense of mutual understanding or negotiation, and the relationship is inherently imbalanced.
The tendency of many progressives to internalize this deep assumption has caused much of their interpretation of Islam to square with that of the extreme right wing, whose criticisms stem from a much simpler kind of antagonism. Yet both groups’ misgivings and misunderstandings can be traced back to a basic ignorance that has plagued the West long before the tragedies of 9/11, and can only be mended if observers of all stripes are willing to assess Islam on its own terms.
Steven Zhou is a writer and analyst based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Embassy Magazine, and Al Jazeera English, among other publications.
When the United States Senate refused to consider reforms to its surveillance state last week, it voted under a cloud of ominous warnings from former spy directors and soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about ISIS and the specter of domestic radicalization. At the same time, Canada is publicly processing the aftermath of an actual act of domestic terror and drumming up its own climate of fear in order to expand its surveillance powers.
It’s always uncomfortable for a country to ask “why” when a member of its own citizenry decides to commit acts of political violence against his/her state. It’s uncomfortable because the act of answering such a query is the political equivalent of looking in the mirror. It’s unsettling to see one’s own blemishes reflected back, and much easier to avoid the ordeal altogether. But as political claims about radicalization are being used to justify significant public policies, it is important to have an accurate understanding of the mechanisms at work.
Canada is going through this disquieting process right now after a gunman named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa last month before shooting up Parliament. He was eventually gunned down, but the city was thrown into a state of panic, with the Prime Minister hiding momentarily inside a broom closet. The shooting was the most prominent episode of domestic terrorism for Canada since the FLQ days of 1970.
Debate over the nature of the attack ensued immediately after the perpetrator’s identity was revealed. The pundits zeroed in on how the country ought to deal with homegrown terrorism and pontificated endlessly on radicalization and “Islamic terrorism.” This is not a new debate for Canada or the West in general. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), has put radicalization as one of its top priorities for years, as have the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
It didn’t take the Conservative government long to announce that new security measures are going to be introduced. These new provisions are supposed to bolster Canada’s security state by giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies more “tools” to do their jobs. The moment of vulnerability and panic was obviously there for the taking, and the Stephen Harper administration exploited the opening. It has paid off, for now, as the Tories shorten the gap in the polls between them and the Trudeau-led Liberal Party in advance of next year’s general election.
The Harper administration’s emphasis on extra surveillance will play itself out legislatively in the coming months, but it has already begun by introducing a bill to allow Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, to broaden its scope of operations. The bill gives CSIS the opportunity to spy abroad or to tap other agencies to collect the data of Canadians abroad, and also proposes giving CSIS informants/sources more anonymity, something that will certainly affect the due process of law in Canada. This bill is just the beginning of what is likely to be a wave of anti-terror legislation to be introduced in the coming months.
Many of those who participate in such debates have tried to ask the “why” question, and a few have come to the conclusion that it’s Canada’s increasingly interventionist and jingoistic posture toward the Muslim world that prompts domestic terrorism. In this view, Canada’s participation in the “War on Terror,” and the Harper administration’s over-the-top support for Israel has antagonized the Muslim world, which now sees a once “peace-making” Canada as an enabler of oppressive politics. Some then take matters into their own hands.
Of course, most do not choose to engage in acts of political violence to express their dissatisfaction with Canadian (or American, or European, etc.) foreign policy, and homegrown terrorism has killed a relatively small amount of people in Canada since, say, 9/11, as compared to more banal dangers like drunk driving or the flu. Furthermore, studies done out of the U.S. conclude that radicalization is decreasing over time, which, logically, should be mirrored by a decrease in surveillance. But that’s just wishful thinking.
The Tories’ security-heavy rhetoric is simple to understand, as it cuts the world into black and white, while not doing much to differentiate between violent Muslims and average ones. In fact, many have voiced their concern that Harper has not taken the time to condemn the anti-Muslim backlash that has resulted from last month’s incident. This has created an atmosphere where the national conversation on terrorism often conflates the Islamic faith with violence. The coalescing of this conceptual trope has raised serious concerns over the antagonizing of the Muslim community, which will certainly be a major target for increased policing and spying.
This doesn’t bode well for Canadians at all if security is the top priority. For though the actual socio-psychological process of radicalization still isn’t well-understood, experts like political scientist Robert Pape have suggested that Western occupations and interventions do indeed play a role in prompting the process. However, it’s not the only factor that leads a person down the path of political violence. Anger at Western policies in the Muslim world and elsewhere provides a “cognitive opening” that primes an individual to be exploited by radical rhetoric. Former Obama advisor Dalia Mogahed, who led Gallup’s effort to survey the Muslim world, also refers to this idea when talking about extremism.
Stating that the invasion of Afghanistan or Canada’s diplomatic support for Israeli is fully to blame for Muslim terrorism isn’t totally correct. But saying that such policies have absolutely zero relationship with rage against the West is probably even more misleading. Policies that antagonize the Muslim world are often necessary catalysts for a person to become open to the process of radicalization, but are not sufficient in-and-of-itself to result in acts of political/ideological violence.
In other words, a person needs to be open to the process of radicalization first before he or she can be truly radicalized, and to commit violence. This opening can be prompted by many factors, which is why each individual case is so different, depending on the person’s life circumstances. Anger at Western policy/crimes, social alienation, poverty, and mental illness all seem to play a role at one point or another for these individuals. Once they’re in a condition to be open to radical rhetoric, an encounter with, say, online propaganda or an extremist preacher can have serious effects. This is why study after study, like last years’ publication on radicalization co-produced by The Soufan Group (an international intelligence and risk consultancy) emphasizes the local nature of radicalization. It is a local problem that needs local solutions. This means that the federal government needs to incorporate within its national security strategy local groups that can bring troubled individuals into the communal fold.
The bewildering thing is that the intelligence community in Canada understands this. In a 2010 study of radicalization obtained by the Globe and Mail, CSIS concludes that violent radicals about to enact violence usually operate on the margins of their communities. They can’t be found simply by spying on mosques or by policing mainstream communities. The best way to defang them is to empower local communities to keep an eye on each other and to talk sense into the few troubled men or women among them. Simply giving law enforcement more ways to spy and police certain communities will lead to alienation.
Nonetheless, it’s probably safe to say that partnering with Canadian Muslims (on anything) isn’t high up on Harper’s to-do list. It’s much easier to capitalize off of the fear of Canadians by presenting them with the Muslim or immigrant bogeyman, who will impose his will on Canada (or America, or Europe) unless stopped by national security. This is an old game, and certainly not exclusive to Canadian politics. The politics of division, be it in Canada or the U.S., are useful when nearing an election—especially if done well.
The Harper Tories do it very, very well. Over the past few years, the government has assumed an antagonistic posture toward many of the Muslim community’s most prominent institutions. In a time of economic uncertainty, the best way to galvanize a political base is through fear. The Tories, just like Republicans or hawkish Democrats, are always well positioned to do this. Cultivate a base with fear, and fear can always be used to poke it to life when times are tough.
Of course, none of this politicking is meant to make the citizenry safer. In fact, it may lead to the exact opposite result, as it plays right into the rhetorical narratives peddled by extremists who love to push around the idea that the Christian West will not rest unless it conquers Islam itself, and every Muslim along with it. In other words, antagonism will create more antagonism, and more angry Muslims isn’t a good thing for public safety.
As Canada approaches its next elections, and the United States starts to look forward to its own, domestic radicalization is likely to continue to be trotted out as a political tool to justify expansions and protections of each country’s respective surveillance state and interventionism. That rhetoric and those policies will continue to diverge from the actual best practices for keeping their countries safe.
Steven Zhou is a writer and analyst based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Embassy Magazine, and Al Jazeera English, among other publications.
Following yet another ill-fated push at a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the latest Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip has been marked by the making and breaking of cease-fires, the latest reportedly starting this morning. The human toll has been devastating—overwhelmingly so for the Palestinians. Over 1,700 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have died (so far) in the 28-day operation, overtaking the death toll of “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09), which lasted 22 days. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for yet another inquiry into what it sees as “possible war crimes,” just like it did for “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09), which produced the Goldstone Report. Israel’s global image is suffering as the Palestinian dead mount.
Whatever the long-term consequences of this latest episode in the most protracted military occupation in modern history, many Israelis may very well come to see Netanyahu’s rejection of the latest peace plan, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as a missed opportunity.
Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading correspondents, spoke to numerous senior U.S. officials who were involved in the latest Kerry-led push. Barnea’s conversations with these officials provide a rather clear picture of what Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was willing to concede to his Israeli counterparts:
He [Abbas] agreed to a demilitarized state; he agreed to the border outline so 80 percent of settlers would continue living in Israeli territory; he agreed for Israel to keep security sensitive areas (mostly in the Jordan Valley – NB) for five years, and then the United States would take over. He accepted the fact that in the Israeli perception, the Palestinians would never be trustworthy.
He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness. ‘Israel won’t be flooded with refugees,’ he promised.
In other words, Abbas and the P.A. gave away the house. They conceded key settlement blocs, the Jewish parts of East Jerusalem, and the Palestinian right of return. A two-state solution based on U.N. Resolution 242, 338, and 194 would not have included such concessions to Israel.
Still, Netanyahu said no, demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that Israel maintain “complete control over the territories.” Then, Israel’s Housing and Construction Ministry, headed by Uri Ariel (“an extremist who opposes any agreement with the Palestinians,” according to Barnea), announced the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem by 700 housing units. The entire Kerry process fell apart, and Abbas began to focus on forming a unity government with Hamas.
This act of national reconciliation, by which Hamas essentially adopted Abbas’ program for dealing with Israel, was what ultimately provoked the latest punishment of Gaza. Hamas provided no repudiation of Mahmoud Abbas’ concessions after moving into reconciliation. Despite its awful charter, Hamas has, according to a 2009 report by the United States Institute of Peace, sent Israel “repeated signals” that it is willing to accept peaceful co-existence in a two-state resolution of the conflict based on international law.
None of this was good enough for the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu’s administration then used the deaths of three Israeli teenagers this past June as a pretext to raid the West Bank, killing five Palestinians and arresting hundreds. This resulted in a barrage of rockets from Hamas about a month after the West Bank raid began, precipitating the current Israeli operation.
Noted U.S. scholar Norman Finkelstein has pointed out in his authoritative account of Operation Cast Lead that, according to Israeli political strategist Avner Yaniv, Israel is reacting violently to what he calls the Palestinians’ “peace offensive.” Yaniv used the phrase in his book Dilemmas of Security (1987) to characterize the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982. According to Yaniv, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at that time, led by Yasser Arafat, was contemplating a two-state solution with the Israelis. The problem was that nobody in Israel wanted to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. So, in September 1981, Israel made plans to invade Lebanon, where the PLO was based at the time. The war that ensued put a stop to any possibilities for serious negotiations.
As history continues to repeat itself in the 21st century, Israel’s track record of bad timing calls into question its willingness to negotiate in good faith. Read More…
When Russian soldiers descended into the Ukrainian province of Crimea last month, many observers rightly rebuked the move as a precursor to eventual annexation. They condemned the deployment as illegal, dangerous, and capable of sparking a much larger conflict. Still, some of these spectators took things a step further and saw an opportunity to condemn what they observed as an intrinsic duplicity to the global peace movement.
The loudest participants argue that the antiwar left shows its hypocrisy by not getting on the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s aggression. They ask: if hundreds of thousands of people showed up on the streets of Western cities to protest the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, then why can’t Ukrainians get the same show of international support?
Take Nick Cohen, writing for the conservative British magazine The Spectator, who says that Ukrainians “should be glad that they do not have the support of the relativist left” because of its “pliable” politics. Or take The National Post’s Andrew Coyne, who goes on to condemn the apparently spineless left for being “pacifists” who have become the “PR reps” of tyrants.
There’s no doubt that Russia’s actions amount to an illegal encroachment on Ukraine’s sovereignty. Historian Timothy Snyder explains that Putin’s broader strategic objective is to have Ukraine join something called the “Eurasian Union,” which is essentially a group of authoritarians and dictators banding together to preserve their regional hegemony.
That sounds very unappetizing, but unlike what Cohen and Coyne seem to suggest, just because millions of leftists aren’t filling the streets doesn’t then mean they all endorse Russian expansionism. In fact, there has been quite enough knee-jerk moralism and grand, sweeping rhetoric already escalating Ukraine’s crisis. The peace movement’s resources are limited, and it’s simply not possible to have colossal protests whenever a conflict arises. Not to mention that it’s probably not in Ukraine’s interests to amplify anti-Russia messaging right now. It’s also hard to imagine any commentator, Cohen and Coyne included, showing the same level of outrage if the left failed to protest for, say, the island nation of Palau, if any of its larger neighbors decided to invade it. This kind of selectivity says much more about the ideological framework through which commentators like Cohen look at the world than it does about the left.
Ukraine, of course, is not Palau. The aggressor here is Russia, a chief geopolitical actor in the world whose global agenda doesn’t always align with that of the U.S. and its closer allies. Palau and its neighbors are not symbols of a larger global rivalry in the way that Ukraine and Russia are. Russia still symbolizes opposition to the “Western world” for many in the American political establishment who prefer to remain stubbornly connected to the outdated narratives of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union was perceived to impede the progress of liberal capitalism and democracy throughout the world, Putin’s Russia now disrupts the “unipolar moment,” when the U.S. should be free to project its overwhelming power for global goodness. Or so the (neoconservative) story goes.
In truth, Ukraine is caught between this broader, global rivalry. The admirable impulse of its people to attain a more just country is dwarfed by the ideological myopia of both Russia and the U.S. In the melodramatic narratives that have come to dominate the way the mainstream discusses this crisis, Ukraine’s democratic will should be backed by the ultimate purveyor of freedom in the world, the United States. With its help, plucky little Ukraine will escape Putin’s clutches and go on to enjoy the perks of the European Union, and maybe even NATO.
But reality is different. In the real world, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine has long been a strategic partner of Russia. It was a country still within Putin’s limited sphere of regional influence. If it goes, then Russia loses. Russian interests are at stake, and so it must act to protect them. This, above all, remains the primary impediment to Ukraine’s democratic goals. Did the U.S. State Department not recognize it? If it did, then why did it not apply a reality-based diplomacy that reminded the Euromaidan movement to avoid making Russia feel like a loser in all this?
As John Mearsheimer notes in his New York Times op-ed, Russia “drew a line in the sand” when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia will become members. The Russians already watched Poland and the Baltic states accede. Ukraine was simply a step too far. Putin, as it turns out, would rather not tolerate NATO expansion right up to his doorstep. An excuse to act was all he needed. Euromaidan’s success in throwing out Yanukovych provided that excuse.
Now, Ukraine’s sovereignty remains violated. Instead of advising caution, the U.S. took a more activist approach, symbolized by Victoria Nuland’s handing out of cookies to protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the Euromaidan movement. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Nuland decided not to warn the protestors that they may be making a strategic error by forcing Yanukovych out instead of voting him out. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, also failed to take a more strategic approach, instead calling the ouster of Yanukovych “a day for the history books.” The failure to see the Russia’s reaction to all this as incredibly relevant to Ukraine’s chances of maintaining a sovereign, democratic state has a lot to do with where the crisis is today.
An establishment still nostalgic for the thinking and rhetoric of the Cold War may present Ukraine’s well-being as the West’s primary concern. But the inability to see all this from Russia’s perspective has ruined Ukraine’s chances for a smooth transition out of Russia’s immediate sphere of influence. This is the same kind of naïve and sentimental idealism that characterizes many of America’s ill-conceived forays into the world, including those in the Middle East. It is of course directly related to the neoconservative view of global influence: project American power, whatever it takes. Vladimir Putin is playing the same game, responding in kind to the aggressive expansionism of Russia’s rivals.
The truth, of course, is that plenty of people have expressed distaste for all aggressive interventions, be it by Russia or the United States, or anyone else for that matter. In addition to a Crimea firmly in Putin’s clutches, the Ukrainian interim government and major political parties (who will contend in a general election next month) are chock-full of candidates with their own records of corruption. The far-right Svoboda party now has five ministerial posts in this interim regime, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the neo-nazi Right Sector party, Dmytro Yarosh, is now Ukraine’s deputy national security chief.
Now hawkish Cold Warriors within the United States are calling for NATO forces to be deployed into Western Ukraine, or at least on it’s border with Poland. U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, has been given a mandate to draw up plans to counter Russia’s move and “reassure NATO members nearest Russia that other alliance countries have their back.” Breedlove says that he wouldn’t “write off the involvement of any nation, to include the United States.”
If that happens, Russia will almost certainly declare and execute an official invasion into eastern Ukraine. What follows such a disaster is anyone’s guess.
Steven Zhou is a writer and analyst based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Embassy Magazine, and Al Jazeera English, among other publications.