Trump’s wild week, Marine Le Pen pops in, aircraft carrier diplomacy, peace deals
This week, Trump’s administration and its relationship with the media come into focus, China and Russia try aircraft carrier diplomacy, and we rank the year in peace deals.
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Here we go.
The Noise This Week
During the presidential campaign, a report circulated that the Trump team had offered a vice presidential candidate control of foreign and domestic policy. What would that leave Trump? The job of making America great again. The past week in American politics reinforces that view of his presidency. Trump continues to drive the main public narrative about his administration through social and traditional media spectacles, only occasionally publicly intervening on policy issues. Meanwhile, his key Cabinet officials seem to feel free to disagree with his core policy positions in their nomination hearings. Rex Tillerson, the nominee for State, notably said he didn’t oppose the TPP trade deal but suggested he wanted to renegotiate aspects of it. (Hillary Clinton would approve.) James Mattis, the Defense nominee, described Russia as an adversary and praised the intelligence community. Trump’s comments Wednesday on health care reform, a major domestic priority, were at best vague, indicating that Congress and the nominee for Health and Human Services, Tom Price, will be the ones to shape the program. All that means policy will be largely driven by the Cabinet and congressional Republicans, with Trump chiming in as he sees fit, according to logic that may be opaque to outsiders. Being in the Trump administration may involve quite a bit of freedom, at the price of getting blindsided by the president.
Elsewhere in Trumpworld, reporters stumbled across Marine Le Pen, the French National Front candidate, sitting in the ice cream parlor in Trump Tower on Thursday. Though she reportedly did not meet the president-elect — she just happened to choose the world’s most visible place to have coffee — a meeting with Trump would be a long time coming. Even her niece took the opportunity to proclaim a Trump-Putin-Le Pen axis. (You would think the word “axis” would have been retired from European politics, but who knows.) Other highly visible members of the pro-Trump, pro-Russia, European nationalist-populist camp, particularly Viktor Orbán, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage, have already publicly tied themselves to Trump. What’s yet to be seen is if they can deepen their collaboration, particularly where it involves Russia, into more of an ideological movement and less of the coalition of interests it is now. At the very least, they need to make sure their fierce anti-immigrant sentiments don’t slow down the process of getting visas to visit Trump Tower.
Speaking of the Russians, what about… that story? Short of any of the allegations being substantiated, the consequences of the Trump dossier are likely to remain within the media and the intelligence community. The U.S. intelligence community had nothing to do with creating the dossier, but Trump has publicly blamed unspecified American agencies for allowing the dossier to become public. They may face blowback, deserved or not. And the war within the press over the ethics of releasing the dossier only enhances Trump’s ability to divide and conquer the media. He can give access on subjects he likes — taking a late-night phone call from a reporter on celebrity issues and giving Breitbart a front-row seat to press conferences — while denouncing an entire cable network as fake news. Trump’s mastery of the media continues to underpin his political effectiveness, especially as it takes attention off of policy shifts. That will help him weather storms like the one he’s facing now.
Elsewhere in the world, Russia and China are seizing the moment of disunity in the West to undertake a little aircraft carrier diplomacy, previously the exclusive domain of Washington. China sailed the Liaoning through the Taiwan Strait, immediately evoking comparisons with Bill Clinton’s decision to sail the Nimitz through the strait in 1995 at another time of high tension. Russia, meanwhile, took the famed Admiral Kuznetsov to Libya and brought onboard Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan general opposed to the UN-backed government, for a public display of alignment. Neither the Russian nor the Chinese ships are effective tools of hard-power projection, especially compared to much more capable U.S. aircraft carriers. But as with all tools, what matters is how you use them. The U.S. has long used its military, particularly the Navy, to send messages to the world. Now, with Washington distracted, China and Russia are deploying the same tactics. It will be many years before those countries catch up on military capabilities, but their ability to execute on a strategy is just as advanced. Let’s just hope Xi Jinping doesn’t start tweeting.
Self-Promotion Interlude: Watch Mujtaba Rahman discuss how populism will shape Europe next year
Ranked: The Year in Peace Deals
Barack Obama may have started off his administration with a Nobel Peace Prize, but somehow it doesn’t seem like the sages in Oslo are going to bestow the same favor upon Donald Trump. At least not in year one. Still, peace efforts are underway in a number of conflicts around the world. Some are more robust than others: Israel-Palestine is on life support, while Northern Ireland’s is currently being tested. Here, in rough order of how likely they are to actually help real people, are a few of the peace processes we’ll be talking about in 2017.
6. Syria: The Nondeal Deal. The major military developments in Syria in late 2016, particularly the fall of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, have set up 2017 as a year of political deal-making. Russia and Turkey are backing a peace conference in Kazakhstan next month. But while that process might lead to some kind of official deal with the Assad government, it is unlikely to improve the lives of many Syrians, if only because the process leaves out key players, such as the U.S. and the Kurdish militants it backs. For Bashar Assad, this year may offer a “mission accomplished” moment: a time to declare victory while the fighting rolls on.
5. Ukraine: Frozen Process. A bloody stalemate has persisted in eastern Ukraine since Vladimir Putin’s little green men showed up to declare their independence from Kiev. In principle, both Russia and Ukraine have agreed to a framework, known as Minsk II, meant to eventually lead to a peace deal. Russia’s incentive to follow through is in part to get sanctions from the EU and U.S. lifted, but under the Trump presidency — and with the EU increasingly divided — Putin may see sanctions relief soon regardless. The Ukrainians also don’t want to follow through on their end of the bargain, which would require weakening the central government. Peace, sadly, is not a good bet.
4. South Sudan: Take Two. Independence has not gone well for South Sudan. The war between North and South that led to independence in 2011 has ended, only to give way to civil war within the South. In 2015, President Salva Kiir negotiated an official truce with his opponent, questionably ousted former Vice President Riek Machar, but the deal did not end the fighting. Now Kiir has expressed interest in revisiting the arrangement, raising hopes that 2017 may be the year rebuilding finally starts. But one key element is missing from the equation. Close U.S. diplomatic involvement was crucial to the relatively successful breakoff of South Sudan from Sudan. It’s an open question whether a Rex Tillerson-led State Department will be equally engaged going forward.
3. Myanmar: Halting Progress. In an effort to resolve the country’s ongoing ethnic conflict, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has been pushing forward with a peace process initiated by the former military junta. A peace conference last summer ended without concrete action, but the parties will meet again next month. Any progress is likely to be piecemeal. Not all of the participants in the process have signed up for a national cease-fire announced in 2015, and the civilian government’s control of the army, which wrote the country’s constitution, is not entirely secure. Similarly, the process doesn’t address another ongoing set of problems with Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, who have been neglected by Suu Kyi’s administration. Still, the continuation of the process is a positive sign.
2. Colombia: Momentum for Peace. Apparently one Nobel Peace Prize is not enough for President Juan Manuel Santos, who managed to push through a deal with the rebel FARC group last year. His government is moving forward with talks with the country’s last remaining guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). With some 1,500 fighters, the group is much smaller than the FARC, and it has clearly seen the writing on the wall. The age of the guerrilla has passed in Colombia.
1. Cyprus: Close But…? A deal to reunify Cyprus may be close at hand. The leaders of the two sides of the island, divided after a Turkish invasion in 1974, held talks this week in Geneva along with key foreign ministers. High hopes have been dashed before: a 2004 reunification effort collapsed after voters in Greek Cyprus rejected a referendum on the plan, and any new deal would need to be voted on by both sides this time as well. Plus, Turkey is a wild card. It keeps 30,000 troops in Turkish Cyprus, and after the coup attempt, no one can guess what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intentions are. Still, if 2017 is to be a year of peace, it may start in Cyprus.
Your Weekly Bremmer
A New Era for the U.S. Trade Representative: Eurasia Group’s Jon Lieber profiles USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer, who would bring radical change to a traditionally pro-free-trade office. Here’s what he will mean for China.
Trump’s team has talked tough on China, but in Lighthizer they now have a forceful advocate and an experienced lawyer who will lead their efforts to rebalance the bilateral trade relationship. U.S. corporations who source from China should take notice of this radical pick — this is not your father’s USTR. And where the U.S. goes, China will follow.
The Chinese leadership will be watching the early actions of the Trump administration carefully, and will respond in kind to any aggressive attempts to disrupt the bilateral relationship. The fear of free traders is that the U.S. and China push each other to escalate trade tensions, where U.S. moves to block counterfeit goods coming from China results in Chinese moves to block American entertainment properties from showing there, to name one example.
6 years were added in Chinese history books to the length of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which will now on be known as the “14-Year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.” It was formerly eight years.
7 joint military exercises, at least, between China and South Korea have been canceled since Seoul agreed last year to deploy the US THAAD anti-defense missile system. Tit-for-tat heating up on the Korean Peninsula.
10 calls a day are placed between U.S. and Russian commanders during busy periods in Syria and Iraq to clear airspace for the two countries’ military operations. The calls are made critical by Russian planes’ refusal to use identifying signals, a violation of international protocol.
2 mutinies have taken place in Ivory Coast in the past three years, including one this weekend. A few bumps on the road to reintegrating post-civil-war militaries are to be expected.
$900–1,100 a month is the typical salary of North Korean diplomats working abroad, according to a defector. But who’s working for North Korea for the money, anyway?
Words of Wisdom
“2017 will be the year when people unite to peacefully beat the mafia in power and promote a rebirth.”
– Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is looking like the one to beat in Mexico’s upcoming presidential race. He’s not going to enjoy paying for that wall.