Friday News Roundup — May 10, 2019: Approaching the Trade Cliff; Undermining the Iran Deal; Ensuring that Rights Apply Everywhere, Even Gitmo; Plus News You May Have Missed
Happy Friday from Washington, DC. This week, the biggest story in the capital has been the trenches being dug by the White House and Congress drawing out the battle lines for oversight and divided government. What was already a simmering disagreement two weeks ago came to a rolling boil last week and now threatens to completely overflow. Keep an eye out over the next few days for more thoughts from us about what this fight means for the future of constitutional legitimacy and the “necessary and proper” function of the legislative branch. Across the pond, local council elections in England produced a rout for the Conservative Party who currently control the government, but also a major setback for the primary opposition Labour Party and major gains for the recently moribund Liberal Democrats. Everybody in British politics appears to have taken this news as a sign that their preferred policy option is the right one, so there is little room for optimism there either.
This week, Dan looks at next phase of the tariff war between the U.S. and China and questions about the short-term financial hit versus the long-term competition between the two powers; Michael wonders how the Trump administration plans to connect “maximum pressure” to actual reform in Iran; Chris takes the opportunity to reflect on how poorly the legal limbo of the Guantanamo Bay detention center fits into America’s vision of its own ideals; and we end with some news you may have missed.
Finally, yesterday was the final day at CSPC for our intrepid intern Alec Manici, who will be graduating from Virginia Tech next week. Alec, thank you for all your hard work this semester; we have really enjoyed the perspective you bring to these roundups.
U.S.-China Trade Tensions Roil World Markets
With two tweets on Sunday night, President Trump announced that China was reneging on commitments made during the ongoing trade negotiations, and that the U.S. side would soon be raising tariffs on a range of goods from 10% to 25% — as well as threatening a 25% tariff on imports upon which tariffs remain currently unlevied. Markets, long anticipating a positive resolution to the U.S.-China trade dispute, were quickly thrown into turmoil. By Wednesday morning, global stock losses had reached $1.36 trillion, or, $13 billion per word of those two tweets (for those of you keeping score at home.)
The capital market’s optimistic viewpoint ignored the vast differences between the U.S. and Chinese approaches to these trade talks — and the impact of historical perception and domestic politics on both sides of the Pacific. The United States and China are moving from an era of cautious engagement to growing rivalry, and the economic interdependence complicates this growing great power competition. Trade and commerce preclude a division into Cold War style blocs, but differences in political systems, security interests, and fundamental values are as stark as ever.
A key area of dispute between Washington and Beijing is whether the measures agreed to in the negotiations will be codified into Chinese law. Past experience with Chinese trade negotiations tells of promises made, but then implemented at a glacial pace — if ever — as the Chinese administrative state resists the promised reforms. One key example is China’s long-postponed pledge to open its credit card markets to western companies. While promises had been made to open the credit card markets by 2006, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are still working for access to the Chinese market. In the meantime, firms like Union Pay and services like Alibaba’s AliPay have achieved dominance in China’s domestic market — and, if you look closely, you’ll increasingly see the Union Pay logo at a range of U.S. merchants while there is no such reciprocity in China.
Without the force of changes to Chinese legal code to ensure that Beijing cannot slow-walk reforms, or leave them to the ambiguity of party-controlled courts, U.S. negotiators know that the changes to technology transfer or promised intellectual property protection could meet a similar fate to long-promised credit card market access.
In these Friday roundups, I have often analyzed how China has embarked on a series of policies to ensure that it never again lags western powers. China seeks to achieve advantages in key future technologies by harnessing its massive domestic market and copying western innovations through forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft. With an eye towards history, the Chinese have remembered the “centuries of humiliation” that came as a result of the unequal treaties forced upon a weakened China by European powers. Therefore, Chinese leaders are loathe to accept terms that appear forced upon it by the United States. Furthermore, if Chinese President Xi Jinping has just achieved paramount authority within the Chinese political system, it would be an ignominious start to his “era” to break before U.S. pressure. With total control over the political system and increased state control over the economy, why would Xi suddenly cede his new powers? Finally, the Chinese do believe that they have an upper hand in terms of a generational outlook, while their American, and other foreign, counterparts have to address election cycles and quarterly earnings reports.
At the same time, the Trump administration has demonstrated a willingness to ensure that pressure on China continues — even if it introduces new headwinds to a rosy economic picture. Advisors like Robert Lighthizer and Peter Navarro see these trade negotiations as a key point in a long-term struggle between the two countries. Even more market-friendly advisors like Larry Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been working to present a united front. With American voters — as well as business leaders and policy experts — growing increasingly weary of China, there has even been bipartisan support in Congress for the president’s hard line. How long voters can bear economic costs—especially in key constituencies like agriculture or manufacturing—remains to be seen.
Just as President Trump was willing to walk away from the Hanoi negotiations as “no deal” was better than a “bad deal,” a similar calculus must now be considered in the negotiations with China. Markets — and the broader economy — may soon start to feel the pain, but determining whether U.S. or Chinese national interests and fundamental values ultimately prevail is, perhaps, the bigger investment in our future.
Iran Deal Sabotage Continues
Last month, the White House declared its intention to “bring Iran’s oil exports to zero” by ending the waivers for certain countries that allowed them to buy Iranian crude oil under the latest round of sanctions. Until now, the Trump administration has made vocal its opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal), but allowed it to continue among the other signatories, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. By ratcheting up this “maximum pressure” campaign, the president has made it clear that he seeks to increase tensions with Iran in an attempt to force the Islamic Republic to fundamentally reform. The administration’s maximalist demands, however, actively disincentivize the reforms they claim to seek while potentially courting armed conflict. The JCPOA was not meant to be the last word on U.S.-Iranian relations, but the administration has abandoned real progress for purely rhetorical gains.
In a speech that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave at the Heritage Foundation last year, there are twelve steps the Islamic Republic must take before the U.S. ends its sanctions regime. The problem is one of sequencing. Upending Iran’s entire security strategy is a high price to pay upfront and, frankly, the Iranian government has some good reason to believe that the United States may not be negotiating in good faith.
Even if you do not believe the Islamic Republic’s self-serving narrative about the implacability of American hostility to Iran, there are areas of fundamental strategic competition in the region that would lead to ongoing hostility between the United States and Iran. Bahrain, where a Sunni ruling elite governs a restive and predominantly Shiite population is a perfect example. Even if Iran were to stop supporting regime opponents, the Saudis would continue to view Bahraini politics through a sectarian lens: replacing the al Khalifa family with a Shiite-majority government — even one governed by the royal family from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood — would decrease Saudi regional power and increase Iranian influence. Iran may not be wrong in thinking that, as long as U.S. regional policy is so closely aligned to Saudi policy, there is actually little room for improved relations and, therefore, little likelihood of sanctions relief even if they capitulate.
One of the things I fear most about this political moment is the growing risk of the subordination of foreign policy means to domestic policy ends, which could also put a cap on the future of warm relations between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. is perfectly happy to have friendly interactions with unrepentant Cold War foes and engage in international trade with communist countries that undertake malign activity in areas of intense American strategic interest. Even North Korea gets love from this administration! Cuba, however, is a special case. This remains true even as the first generation of Cuban exiles has aged out of the scene because a sorting has taken place: opposition to normal relations with Cuba has become part of Republican foreign policy orthodoxy. A similar kind of sorting may also be taking place with Iran. Check out how many Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have voiced support for rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. If hostility to Iran becomes baked into dyadic American politics, there is likewise little reason to believe that true normalization is possible.
The entire Iran policy discussion in the Trump administration suffers from what Dan Drezner calls the “underpants gnomes” strategy problem. Phase 1 is escalating pressure, threats, and sanctions; Phase 3 is the Iranian regime stops being itself; but no one is really clear on what Phase 2 is supposed to be. Trump administration statements imply that they expect the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the Islamic Republic, but left unanswered is what happens if the regime stubbornly refuses to collapse. Iran has already announced a series of steps it is prepared to take if the nuclear deal continues to fray, including building uranium enrichment centrifuges and enriching some of its uranium stockpile beyond the level necessary to run a reactor — two things that Iran was not doing under the nuclear deal.
Aside from the psychological animus against one of his predecessor’s signature foreign policy accomplishments, the primary complaint lodged against the nuclear deal is that it did not address all of the ills perpetrated on the region and the world by the leading state sponsor of terror. In fact, with fewer sanctions and no clandestine nuclear program sucking up resources, Iran had greater capacity to make trouble. Those are true statements, but the deal removed the risk of nuclear war from those provocations! The JCPOA was not meant to usher in an era of U.S.-Iranian amity; it was designed as a first-step, a confidence-building measure that would remove the primary driver of uncertainty that could produce an escalatory dynamic leading to war.
Nuclear weapons are the ultimate regime safeguard: no outside power will risk annihilation to overthrow a nuclear state. The Iranians presumably learned this by watching Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi die violent deaths at the hands of American-backed rebels, while Kim Jong-Il died of natural causes in the loving embrace of his terrified subjects. Forgoing their nuclear weapons program was a signal by regime elements in Iran that they were ready for a world in which they competed but coexisted with the United States and its allies in the Middle East. By breaching that bargain and now actively working to undermine it, the Trump administration has demonstrated that they are not.
Onion Predicts Future: Gitmo Becomes Old Age Home
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is home to a monument of the War on Terror. Unlike the World War II memorial here in D.C., Guantanamo Bay does not convey a sense of honor and dignity but rather hosts America’s most notorious terrorist detention center as its memorial. 17 years after its creation, the detention camp houses 40 inmates, mostly captured during the early years of the War on Terror and held without charges. As the prisoners age and remain in captivity for decades, the Department of Defense has discussed the necessity of end-of-life care capacity at the base (which is eerily reminiscent of an Onion article). The second highest court in the land also recently questioned the legality of the government’s denial of detainees’ habeas corpus rights. This reinforces the fact that the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay runs contrary to American principles of good governance.
The D.C. Court of Appeals’ judgement in the aforementioned case served to highlight the deep faults in the quasi-justice system created for Guantanamo Bay. Judge David Tatel, writing for the court, found that the military tribunals for the camp were rife with bias. He also saw fit to point out that Air Force Col. (and tribunal “judge”) Vance Spath’s bias was hardly a fluke in this system; many serious appeals have arisen for similar reasons. It is not difficult to imagine why the current structure is flawed; officers in the U.S. military are the sole arbiter regarding the fate of prisoners captured while fighting the U.S. military. This condition incentivizes them to create a kangaroo court where they dole out harsh “justice” just as Col. Spath did. The invalidation of all the Colonel’s rulings on a case regarding the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole by Judge Tatel prompts a closer look at the system as a whole.
The camp was originally established as part of the War on Terror in 2002 as a place to hold captive alleged terrorists. The establishment of the camp in the first place had dubious motivations; since the land on which the base sits is technically leased from Cuba’s Batista government (which has since been replaced by a Castro government that no longer recognizes our right to it), it is neither American territory nor Cuban territory. This legal limbo creates a zone where the Bush administration wagered that the laws of the land do not necessarily apply. This would include the right of habeas corpus, which is routinely violated by the government in their detention of alleged terrorists. This wager was successful for years, and human rights issues took a backseat to national security as the War on Terror played out.
As the years went on and the American people grew tired of the War on Terror, all of its vestiges came under the microscope. The Guantanamo Bay detention facility drew the ire of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, who promised to shutter the camp if elected. Upon his ascension to the presidency, however, lack of political will, lack of political capital, and intense opposition from the Republican Party forced him to cast this promise aside. President Trump has expressed unabashed support for the presence of the installation, even going so far as to endorse the methods of torture formerly employed there. This resurgence of Age of Absolutism-style political philosophy is troubling, and stand in opposition to the political principles expressed in the founding of this nation.
Complaints against unfair trial proceedings were included in the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson lamented the king’s propensity both “for depriving [the colonists] in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury” and “for transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.” In the same document, Jefferson broadens the scope of his argument beyond just the conflict between his countrymen and King George. The passage in which he declares that “all men are created equal” is almost a cliche at this point in history, but it emphasizes a broader point about American political philosophy: rights don’t only pertain to Americans, but to all mankind. The Constitution reinforces this idea through its language; each amendment in the Bill of Rights is worded to indicate that each right already existed before the document was framed. This means that the founders believed in a “right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” that is inborn, not granted by a temporal power.
By bringing alleged terrorists to the Caribbean for dubious trials, the government violates Jefferson’s wish as expressed in the Declaration. By railroading them in a secretive trial with only a military officer acting as judge and jury or abridging their right to habeas corpus, the government violates both Jefferson’s sentiment and the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Human beings, however heinous their actions, have an inherent right to be tried fairly and to advocate for themselves in open court. When we deprive them of these rights, we make a mockery of justice, and we spit in the face of thousands that died to protect these liberties. The Constitution exists not to protect the rights of those who are popular and in the majority, but to spring into action in just such instances for an unpopular minority whose liberties are likely to be quashed. We must not let unbridled emotion govern us, but we must make reasoned appraisals of our rights and their implications for true justice.
As a pioneer in the field of liberalism and republicanism, the United States should not be a torturous, bloodthirsty nation. When government officials are pondering how best to provide end of life care to detainees who have never had so much as a trial, something has gone wrong. When federal judges are expressing disgust at the bias and unfairness of military tribunals, we must take a second look. This is not who we are, and this is not who we should endeavor to be.
Stories You May Have Missed
Of all the consequential news stories changing the course of history and politics that we at the Center love to cover, we’d like to direct your attention to the case of the Russian spy whale. Fishermen off the coast of Norway recently came across a beluga whale that was wearing a harness that had mounts for a camera. It is believed that the beluga was trained by the Russian military. Jorgen Ree Wiig, a marine biologist at Norway’s Directorate of Fisheries, told CNN that the harness appeared to be “specially made” and had “mounts for GoPro cameras on each side of it”. Astonishingly, the words on the harness clips read “Equipment St. Petersburg”. He elaborated that in the past the Russian navy has “been known to train belugas to conduct military operations, like guarding naval bases, helping divers, finding lost equipment”. Martin Biuw, a marine mammal researcher at Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, in reference to the beluga, said that “The fact that it’s a trained animal is undoubtable”. When asked to comment on news stories about the whale, the Russian government did not respond to inquiries.
While it may come as a surprise that our animal friends are incorporated into military strategy, the practice is not new. Beginning in the 1960s, a handful of countries, including the United States, have trained sea lions and dolphins in the detection of swimmers and sea mines. These animals have also been trained to be able to test objects used in naval exercises, such as immobile torpedoes. Prior to the 1990s, the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program was classified, but there is now more transparency around the program. Over the years, the program has also benefited from the training of California sea lions, who have extraordinary underwater eyesight, and Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which posses natural biosonar more sophisticated than any man made device. During the Iraq War, dolphins were deployed to detect mines in the Persian Gulf to allow ships to safely deliver humanitarian assistance.
The story of the Russian spy whale, and the broader use of animals in military service is not necessarily a story that is always on our sonar, but it raises important questions pertaining to the ethics of such practices. On a personal note, this will be my last piece for the Center, and I would like to wish everyone reading a wonderful weekend. May you always live in interesting times.
In a story that could have been taken straight from a novel, a former CIA official has admitted to plotting to spy for China. The saga of Jerry Chun Shing Lee reveals the fascinating and disturbing lengths of espionage efforts against America from Beijing. The development, for now, puts to rest suspicion pertaining to who was acting as a Chinese mole. Lee pleaded guilty on May 1 to providing classified information to Chinese intelligence officials, and U.S officials believe that Lee’s efforts helped result in the exposure, arrest, and execution of at least 20 CIA assets operating in China.
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the same political party has ruled South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, formed from the various opposition groups that existed during apartheid, has secured a majority in South Africa’s legislature yet again in this week’s elections. However, the party had perhaps its weakest showing since the nation’s democratic government was established, owing to widespread corruption within the ruling party. Although the current president (who ascended to the office after the last president resigned in disgrace) has vowed to clean up corruption, it appears that the people are not entirely convinced. Regardless, they have given the ANC a chance to clean up their act in the coming years.
On May 8th, Nigeria’s electrical grid collapsed, leaving almost all of the nation’s 200 million inhabitants in darkness. While the average electrical output was 4,032 megawatts at the beginning of this week, the average dwindled to 230 megawatts in the midst of the outage. The distribution company that supplies electricity to the country’s federal capital and the surrounding area was particularly hard hit, receiving only 70 megawatts from the national grid at its peak after the crash; this area alone is home to at least 13 million people. The government has not identified the cause of the massive outage, but it points to an infrastructure deficit in the African power. In 2018, gas shortages crippled the nation’s electrical grid as well.
The views expressed by contributors are theirs and not the view of CSPC.