Friday News Roundup — May 31, 2019
China Weaponizes Rare Earths; Navy Pilots Talk UFOs; Amash Triggers Impeachment Questions; European Elections Offer Few Answers; Plus News You May Have Missed
Greeting from Washington, D.C., where we’ve been applying plenty of sunscreen as summer heat hits The Swamp in full force. The thunderstorms in the city haven’t just been literal this week, as Robert Mueller’s press conference regarding his report spurred a frenzy among the media and policymakers alike. President Trump traveled to Japan this week to discuss regional threats, confer with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and meet the new emperor. We here at CSPC would also like to express our gratitude to the brave men and women who have given the last full measure of devotion in service of their country; let us dedicate ourselves to making this a country worth fighting for.
This week, we cover a broad spectrum of issues in the roundup. Dan tackles Chinese threats to hold rare earths hostage in the ongoing trade war with the United States and what it means for American reliance on foreign providers of goods. Michael discusses aliens — specifically, recent reporting that Navy pilots saw unidentified flying objects. Chris reviews the nature of Congress’ impeachment power through the lens of Representative Justin Amash’s recent calls for the impeachment of President Trump. We also welcome one of our former International Fellows Tea Cimini to the roundup to analyze last week’s EU Parliament elections. Through our fellows program, CSPC has access to some of the brightest young policy minds and we hope to be able to include more of their thoughts in the future. As always, we wrap up with some of the stories you may have missed.
“Don’t Say [We] Didn’t Warn You” — Rare Earths & U.S. China Competition
勿谓言之不预也, or “don’t say I didn’t warn you,” is a highly significant phrase to be used in the text of People’s Daily. Behind the Great Paywall at Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, he covers when that phrase has been used in the past. In the past, it had been used to warn India, Russia, and Vietnam in advance of military conflict, but, in this editorial, it was used to threaten cutting off rare-earth minerals to the United States.
Now, rare-earth minerals are somewhat of a misnomer, as they’re not all that “rare,” but they are vital for a range of products from your iPhone to the military’s smart bombs, and from that shiny new Tesla’s battery to the local hospital’s MRI. Since these minerals underpin a wide range of modern technologies, there is a significant strategic implication regarding their control.
Over the past two decades, China has achieved a strategically dominant position in rare-earth materials. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, China accounts for 80% of U.S. rare-earth imports, 71% of global rare-earth mining, and 37% of global reserves. While some of this reflects the geography of the mineral deposits and strategic acquisitions by Chinese mineral firms, it is mainly because of the nature of rare-earth processing. Rare-earths are plentiful, but they are generally in hard-to-process ores that also raise concerns in terms of pollution, radioactivity, and other externalities. Therefore, in the United States, mining these materials is difficult, expensive, and requires a heavy level of environmental and safety oversight. In sum, China’s owes its position in rare-earths because of a global willingness to export these nasty externalities to China.
As China threatens to withhold exports of these materials to the United States, it is worth remembering that they did the same to Japan in 2010, during a territorial dispute. In Bloomberg, David Fickling suggests that some of the uproar about rare earths is overblown. Even when Japan was cut off from the Chinese, the Japanese government quickly worked to find alternative sources, and adopted a range of measures, including government loans, to start and expand production by domestic and non-Chinese suppliers. Given the importance of these minerals, the U.S. government may be thinking of such an approach — even though that might get some to start to cry foul over “industrial policy,” or…today’s favorite boogeyman…”socialism!”
However we ultimately approach rare-earth minerals will reflect the importance of these materials for today’s advanced technology, but it also provokes reflection of how the globalized system has allowed us to export many of our externalities to China — and other countries. In areas where the United States appears beholden to China, it was not because of some master scheme in Beijing, but because it was often easier, and cheaper, to have China handle that work. Be it rare-earths, tedious low-wage jobs, or even our recycled waste, these were all things that we were happy to ship across the Pacific.
Now, as trade tensions — and broader geopolitical ones — continue to simmer, we may need to consider what level of reliance we want to have on other countries that handle the “dirty jobs.” Bringing them back to the United States would raise a range of costs, and multi-year environmental impact statements are a stark contrast to the fiat of provincial officials. Furthermore, at a time when many of our industries rely on immigrant labor to handle most of the drudgery of “dirty jobs” — agriculture being a prime example — it raises questions about our workforce and what Americans are willing to do. Those are things we must consider when we balance these questions with priorities like avoiding over-reliance on one country for rare-earths or setting lofty goals for recycling and resource recovery.
As they’ve carved out leadership in important sectors, give the Chinese leadership credit where credit is due, but also realize that our policies and preferences have played a significant role.
It Is Time to Rethink UFOs
Hold on one second while I adjust my tinfoil hat.
Acknowledging one’s belief in the existence of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) tends to put the utterer into a particular category of kooks, alongside the people who spend their time searching the Pacific Northwest for signs of Sasquatch or dive in Loch Ness for evidence of a monster. Believing that vaccines cause autism — actual, dangerous crankery that has been thoroughly debunked — has a place in polite society it seems, as does belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent deity that takes a unique and personal interest in the lives of individual humans, the evidence for which is mixed. UFOs have traditionally been treated as outside the bounds of regular scientific inquiry, but recent evidence suggests that the human race might want to update its Bayesian priors on that question. This does not mean that extraterrestrials exist — normally a corollary of UFO belief — but that it is harder to dismiss them as outside the testable bounds of scientific inquiry.
Last week, the New York Times reported (deep in the A Section on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend *thinking face emoji*) about five U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet pilots who encountered unidentified flying objects along the eastern seaboard while on training maneuvers off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in late 2014-early 2015. The objects had no visible engines or infrared signatures and appeared to accelerate to hypersonic speeds (above Mach 5) and make sudden stops and instantaneous turns that would liquify a human aboard. This all sounds pretty batty and the Times quotes a very credentialed astrophysicist who says that UFOs are so monumentally unlikely that we should not accept this incident as proof of their existence and should investigate other, “more mundane explanations,” like “bugs” in computer systems and “neurological overload … during high-speed flight.”
I am not here to adjudicate this dispute because I am so exceptionally unqualified to do so. I may think that the “bugs and overload” explanation is somewhat difficult to accept when there are several observers on different aircraft using multiple systems including both APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar and Mark I Eyeballs simultaneously, but your mileage may vary. I do, however, think that we need to be good Bayesians about this question. Thomas Bayes was a Fellow of the Royal Society who, in trying to assess the likelihood of the existence of the Christian God, created a field of statistics that is based on the limits of our own knowledge and ability to perfectly assess the world around us (Nate Silver gives a good overview of Bayes in his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t). Bayes’s theorem says that, when you encounter new evidence about an unknown phenomenon, you must ask yourself three questions:
- Prior to reading the story in the New York Times, what did you think was the likelihood that there were unidentified flying objects near Earth? This is your “prior probability” P(H) or x
- What is the probability of the observation of the objects described by the pilots, on the condition that UFOs were near Earth? P(H|D) or y
- What is the probability of the observation of the objects described by the pilots if there were no UFOs near Earth (i.e. it was a false alarm)? P(H|D’) or z
According to Bayes’s theorem, your “posterior probability,” your updated assessment of the likelihood that there were UFOs near Earth is (xy)/(xy+z(1-x)). So if before this story you had thought that there was a 1% chance that there were UFOs near Earth (x), a 50% chance that the pilots saw UFOs if they were actually UFOs (y), and a 20% chance of the pilots making those observations if there were no UFOs (y), you should now think that there is a 2.5% chance that there were UFOs in the vicinity of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in late 2014. If you combine this with the similar Times story from December 2017 about an incident reported by pilots off the deck of the USS Nimitz in 2004, your new posterior probability would be 6%. That is still pretty unlikely, but as events involving military aircraft and pilots, who have a higher level of credibility than amateur photographers in the New Mexico desert, begin to pile up, the evidence mounts that UFOs should move out of the crank file.
There are various hypotheses about why there is such opposition to study of UFOs as legitimate scientific inquiry. The Times’s own Ross Douthat has argued that extraterrestrials are the modern equivalent of fairies and that their prevalence in even elite culture is of a sort with “Buddhism, pantheism, and paganism [for] the post-Christian educated set …. [a]n updated spiritualist cosmology.” He also uses the dichotomy between the fight against the study of UFOs and the persistence of UFO sightings as a challenge for the rationalist metaphysics that denies demonic possession, near-death experiences, and the afterlife. I happen to think that Bayes would have some words for Douthat.
Closer to home, Alexander Wendt from the Ohio State University and Raymond Duvall from the University of Minnesota published a paper in 2008 that argued that modern sovereignty is necessarily anthropocentric: the implied social contract that exists in our sense of the state’s right to govern us only makes sense if human beings are the sole sentient agents in the system. Governments and the scientific apparatuses that support them thus have a huge vested stake in refusing to wrestle with the idea that extraterrestrials exist in our neighborhood and, as such, UFOs cannot be real. The paper itself refers to the theories of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, so it is a little tough to keep straight in your head (and I say that having already done math in this roundup piece).
In the Washington Post Dan Drezner suggests that the fact that the Department of Defense is beginning to engage with the idea of UFOs weakens their thesis, but I am not sure that is right. There is no unitary creature called the government, which is actually a group of interrelated hierarchies with different incentives and power structures. Several of these networks have responsibilities for the safety of aircraft and so need to have guidelines for how to deal with flying objects, even unidentified ones. At the level of high politics, there is no sign that anyone is ready to take UFOs seriously, nor any question as to whether they should, even if there might be growing reason to be skeptical of our skepticism.
So You Want to Talk About Impeachment
Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who is known for his libertarianism, called for the impeachment of President Trump last week; at a town hall this week, Amash received a standing ovation from constituents in his district for his stance. His Republican colleagues and other party members across the country, however, do not share their enthusiasm. Trump himself has called the congressman “a total lightweight” and dismissed his opposition as a political stunt to gain notoriety. While the president squabbling with Amash is unsurprising and uninteresting, the questions surrounding impeachment that have arisen are illuminating. Rather than making a value judgement on whether or not the president should be impeached, it seems fit at this time to clarify what impeachment is and what its historical implications are.
Impeachment does not necessarily result in a removal from office, but refers to the investigation conducted by the House of Representatives of misconduct by a civil officer of the United States (in this case, the president). The Senate is then the sole entity responsible for trying impeachment, using the evidence gathered by the House to decide whether or not to penalize (remove) the president. President Trump seems to be confused about the mechanics of impeachment, implying through tweets that he would appeal an impeachment conviction to the Supreme Court and stating verbally that he “can’t imagine the courts allowing it.” This suggestion is simply incorrect; although the Constitution is vague about many things, it is unabashedly clear that the House and Senate are bestowed with the sole power of impeachment and removal, not subject to any interference from the judicial branch.
The Constitution sketches out most of the process, but is not clear for what offences Congress may impeach (and potentially remove) the president; the document lists “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” in particular. Congressman Amash has opined that this was done intentionally, leaving the ultimate judgement to the people’s representatives. It is a misconception that the president must commit a crime to be impeached; in Federalist 65, Alexander Hamilton states that “[t]he subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” With these facts in mind, we move forward with the understanding that it is the decision of members of Congress for what and whether or not to impeach the president.
Historically, only three presidents have realistically faced the prospect of impeachment and possible removal. Andrew Johnson was the first, impeached by the House for his violation of the Tenure of Office Act in firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In that instance, the Senate was just one vote short of removing Johnson. The contentious relationship between a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic administration is reminiscent of the relationship between President Trump and the current House, although the current Republican Senate would all but certainly not vote to remove Trump in a case of impeachment. There is also a less clear case to be made that President Trump has violated any laws; most of Amash’s case for impeachment deals with unbecoming conduct and alleged obstruction of the Mueller investigation.
The 20th century saw the last two instances of impeachment, the first in the case of Richard Nixon. Although the House investigated Nixon’s conduct during the Watergate scandal and the House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment to the full House, President Nixon resigned before a vote could be held, removing the need for such a vote. The impeachment of Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal is perhaps most analogous to a potential case for the Trump administration, especially since the charge levied against the president would likely be obstruction of justice. Even with a Senate containing 55 members of the opposite party, Congress did not come close to the two-thirds majority necessary for removing Clinton from office, although the successful impeachment by the House of Representatives damaged his administration. In a case where the Senate is controlled by the president’s party, it is unlikely that he will be removed from office for a charge such as obstruction of justice.
Since the president cannot be charged with a federal crime while in office (according to the Department of Justice), impeachment is the only punitive measure that can be taken against a sitting officeholder. Robert Mueller has stated repeatedly that his report purposefully does not make a judgement of whether or not the conduct of the president was criminal in nature, but his purpose was to gather presentable evidence to the Attorney General. Since Attorney General Barr released the report to Congress and the public, it is now the House’s choice to pursue or eschew impeachment proceedings. Justin Amash has made his judgement, and there may soon come a time when the rest of our representatives must make theirs.
Far-Right Does Well, but Diffuse Power Is the Theme of EU Parliamentary Elections
Ms. Cimini was a 2017–2018 International Fellow at CSPC and is a graduate student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at Sciences Po in Paris.
As the polling stations closed across the 28 EU member states on Sunday evening, a new political configuration of the European Parliament took shape. Despite the alarmist predictions in the last few weeks, the elections did not culminate in a landslide victory of the far-right — not entirely. Populist and Eurosceptic parties saw significant gains but not of the magnitude widely anticipated, securing roughly a quarter of the seats. Instead, the results saw an extraordinary diffusion of power away from the traditional centre-left/centre-right bloc towards both parties sitting further to the right and left. This surprising outcome was likely the result of the mobilization on the part of European citizens, who turned out to the polls in larger numbers than we have seen since the 2004 enlargement round and expressed their discontent towards mainstream parties.
The European People’s Party (centre-right) and the Socialists & Democrats (centre-left) have maintained a semi-stable grip on the European Parliament for decades, comfortably holding a majority of votes between them since 1979. That is no longer the case, as Parliament is shaping up to be increasingly fragmented. In the process, other parties that have historically played a peripheral role in Parliament have become possible kingmakers — most notably the Greens who managed to become the fourth largest parliamentary group, sending a strong signal of a desire for more robust environmental policies at the EU level.
To add to the confusion, while both left- and right-leaning parties acquired a significant share of the seats, the modest gains of right-leaning parties are being spun as crushing victories at the national level in several countries, with potentially dire consequences for national politics. In France, the narrow albeit greatly celebrated victory of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (by a margin of 1%) over Macron’s La Republique En Marche! adds to list of pressures on the Élysée Palace that has been growing since the onset of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) protests in October 2018. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s Lega took 34% of the votes, strengthening its position vis-à-vis its national coalition partner, the Movimento 5 Stelle, and increasing the chances of a snap election. In the UK, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party became a major national force securing close to 31% of the votes. Pro-Remain parties like the Liberal Democrats also performed well, while the traditional two-party duopoly had a truly terrible election, with uncertain (but surely not positive) implications for the ongoing Brexit negotiations. In Poland and Hungary, governing, right-leaning parties tightened their grip on the countries by taking home 45% and 52% of the votes respectively.
In the coming weeks, major party groups will negotiate the details of the grand coalition to be formed between the various factions. This is important because the results of the European Parliamentary elections have implications that go far beyond the legislative mandate of Parliament. They have the power to shape the political outlook and attitude of the EU as a whole through their connection to the EU Commission. Historically, the appointment of the Commission President fell under the jurisdiction of the European Council, not Parliament. In 1993, the Treaty on European Union granted Parliament the right to be consulted. Finally, with the Treaty of Lisbon of 2007, the EU Parliament went from having the authority to approve to that of directly electing the Commission President. During the electoral campaign, almost all major political groups nominate a “Spitzenkandidat,” or leading candidate, who becomes a top contender for the position of Commission President. While the Treaty of Lisbon does not explicitly outline what has come to being known as the “Spitzenkandidaten process,” a “creative” yet widely accepted interpretation of the Treaty does. This reading of the Treaty has taken hold and been adopted since the 2014 EU Parliamentary election, when Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People’s Party was ushered in as Commission President in an effort to address the perceived democratic deficit of the EU.
Prior to the election, Manfred Weber, the Spitzenkandidat for the European People’s Party and Frans Timmermans from the Socialists and Democrats were considered to be the two top contenders for one of the most coveted jobs in Europe. However, the fragmentation in Parliament will require political groups to invest significant political capital to have their candidate obtain the necessary threshold of votes to be elected. Additionally, national leaders have not shied away from intervening in the process to spur the coalition building discussions in an advantageous direction. French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, for example, have joined forces to try and prevent the European People’s Party candidate from obtaining the position of Commission President and becoming the third consecutive Commissioner President to hail from the centre-right.
Should none of the Spitzenkandidaten garner sufficient support in Parliament, external candidates — or members of the political groups who did not actively campaign — might throw their hats into the ring. At the moment, some names being floated include World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva, who previously held two key Commissioner positions, and Michel Barnier, a two-time French Minister, Chief Negotiator for Brexit, and former Commissioner for Internal Marker and Services in the Barroso Commission, among others. While these supposed candidacies amount to little more than pure speculation, the halls of (European) power will continue to be filled with negotiation talks, as heads of states and party leaders strive to secure top positions for their candidates and, oftentimes, their compatriots. As several challenges are already looming on the horizon (with Brexit being one of them), the attitudes of the new Parliament and Commission will play a major role in shaping the future of the European Union as a whole. Let’s hope these new leaders are up for the task.
News You May Have Missed
White House officials asked the U.S. Navy to keep the destroyer USS John McCain out of sight during the president’s visit to Japan this week for fear of inciting his anger. When told that the destroyer could not be moved due to repairs, a tarp was used to cover the name of the ship, and then a tugboat was moved in front of the ship to obscure its name. Finally, the Navy decided that the ship should remain in its normal position and ignored the White House’s request. Former Principal Under Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks points out that no one in the White House other than the president has the legal authority to order the military to undertake any action, so someone on Capitol Hill ought to ask some tough questions about how this ludicrous enterprise took shape. Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan was reportedly aware of the requests and facilitated them, which may become a topic of conversation during his imminent confirmation hearings.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has always had a way with words, and his department has followed his lead this week. While in Brussels earlier this month, Secretary Perry mused that the U.S. was “delivering a form of freedom” to Europe in the form of liquefied natural gas, comparing this to America’s participation in World War II. This week, in a press release announcing an increase in American natural gas exports, Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes referred to the gas as “freedom gas.” Steven Winberg, the assistant secretary for fossil energy, likewise referred to the fuel as “molecules of U.S. freedom.”
According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States is on track to meet the emissions goals of the Clean Power Plan nearly a decade ahead of schedule. The plan outlined a goal of 32% below the 2005 baseline by 2030, but due to the retirement of coal-fired power plants, a reduction of 32% will be met by 2020, years ahead of the original plan. Replacement of fossil fuels by renewable options, combined with the aforementioned move away from coal, has accounted for a large portion of this achievement.
Having decided to move away from Microsoft Windows due to concerns about its vulnerabilities, the Russian government announced that its Linux-based replacement operating system now meet its highest security standards for official use. While the Kremlin has suggested it has concerns about potential vulnerabilities in the Windows operating system that might be exploited by foreign adversaries, the history of cyberattacks launched by the Russian government, or its affiliated actors, suggests a certain familiarity with the vulnerabilities of operating systems. As of press, we have yet to hear whether there is a Kaspersky anti-virus suite available to download for this software.
The views expressed by contributors are theirs and not the view of CSPC.