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Can Spain’s Socialists Avoid Their Past Pitfalls?

Foreign Policy in Focus - Fri, 06/15/2018 - 3:21pm

Spanish Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez (Shutterstock)

As a new, Socialist-led government takes over in Spain, freshly minted Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faces at least two daunting tasks: 1) cleaning up the wreckage wrought by years of European Union-enforced austerity, and 2) resolving the Catalan crisis exacerbated by Madrid’s violent reaction to last fall’s independence referendum. Unfortunately, his party’s track record is not exactly sterling on either issue.

Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), patched together parties in Catalonia and the Basque region, plus the leftist Podemos Party, to oust long-time Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the right-wing People’s Party (PP). But is the telegenic former economics professor up to the job, and will his party challenge the economic program of the EU’s powerful “troika” — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission?

The answers to those questions are hardly clear, and in many ways the cross currents and rip tides of Spanish politics still resemble Gerald Brenan’s classic study of the Civil War, The Spanish Labyrinth.

Too Centrist for Comfort

While the issue that brought Rajoy down was corruption — a massive kickback scheme that enriched scores of high-ranking PP members — his party was already weakened by the 2015 election, and he has been forced to rely on the conservative Ciudadanos Party based in Catalonia to stay in power. In short, it was only a matter of time before he fell.

Sanchez promises to address the “pressing social needs” of Spaniards, although he has been vague about what that actually means. But Spain is hurting. While economic growth returned in 2013, unemployment is still at 16.1 percent, and youth joblessness is 35 percent. Rajoy took credit for the economy’s rebound from the massive financial meltdown in 2008, but there’s little evidence that budget cuts and austerity did the trick. The two main engines for growth were cheap oil and a weak currency.

The job growth has mainly been in short term and temp jobs, with lower pay and fewer benefits. That’s not specific to Spain, however. Of the 5.2 million jobs created in the EU between 2013 and 2016, some 2.1 million of them have been short term, “mini” jobs that have been particularly hard on young people. Many continue to live at home with their aging parents, and 400,000 have emigrated to other European countries.

Education, health care, and infrastructure have all deteriorated under a blizzard of budget cuts, and Sanchez will have to address those problems. His party’s record on the economy, however, has been more centrist than social democratic, and the PSOE basically accepts the neo-liberal mantra of tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization. It was PSOE Prime Minister Jose Zapatero who sliced more than $17 billion from the budget in 2010, froze pensions, cut child care funds and home care for the elderly, and passed legislation making it easier to lay off workers.

It was anger at the Socialists over rising unemployment that swept Rajoy and the PP into power in 2011. The PSOE has never recovered from that debacle, dropping from 44 percent of the vote to 24.9 percent today. It has only 84 deputies in the Parliament, just 14 more than Podemos.

When Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias proposed forming a government of the left, Sanchez rejected it and instead appointed all PSOE people to the cabinet. However, he will have to rely on support from the left to stay in power, and there’s no guarantee that it will be there unless the Socialists step away from their centrism and begin rolling back the austerity measures.

Sanchez has a mixed record on leftism vs. centrism. He was ousted from the party’s leadership last year by the PSOE’s right wing when he considered forming an earlier united front of the left. It was the party’s rank and file, angered at the right-wing Socialists, that allowed Rajoy to form a minority government that put him back in power. Still, so far Sanchez has been unwilling to consider the kind of alliance of left parties that has been so successful in Portugal.

A Regional Balancing Act

The new government will also need the support of the two Catalan parties, and that will likely be an uphill slog. The Catalans just elected a government that supports independence, although its president, Quim Torra has called for “talks.”

The current Catalonia crisis was ignited when Rajoy torpedoed a 2006 agreement between the Spanish government and the Catalan government that would have given the province greater local control over its finances and recognized the Catalans’ unique culture. Under the prodding of the PP, the Constitutional Court overturned the agreement and shifted the dispute from the political realm to a legal issue.

At the time, the idea of independence was marginal in Catalonia, but the refusal of Rajoy to even discuss the issue shifted it to the mainstream. “Independentism, which until 2010 was a decidedly minority option in Catalonia, has grown immensely,” according to Thomas Harrington, a Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College, CT.

The Catalans began pressing for a referendum on independence — nearly 80 percent supported holding one — although it was initially seen as non-binding. Even though Podemos did not support the idea of independence, it backed the basic democratic right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. The PSOE, however, was as hard-nosed on the issue as Rajoy and the PP. Not only did the Socialists not support the right of the Catalans to vote, they backed Rajoy’s crackdown on the province (although they eventually decried the violence unleashed on citizens trying to vote during last October’s referendum.)

Some 2.3 million Catalans out of the 5.3 million registered voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly endorsed independence, in spite of the fact that Rajoy sent some 10,000 National Police and Guardia Civil into the province to seize ballots, beat voters, and injure more than 850 people. Legal procedures have been filed against over 700 mayors and elected officials, and the Catalan leadership is either in jail or on the run. While Sanchez said the crackdown was “a sad day for our democracy,” he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Catalan government.

Unlike Rajoy, Sanchez says he wants a dialogue with the Catalans, although he also says he intends to uphold the Spanish constitution, which does not permit secession.

Catalan society is deeply split. The big cities tend to be opposed to independence, as are many trade unions. The left is divided on the issue, but many young people support it. As the Financial Times’ Tobias Buck points out, “The younger generation, who have been schooled in Catalan and have less contact with the rest of Spain than their parents, are among the most enthusiastic backers of independence.”

It is also clear that the brutality of Rajoy’s assault has moved people in that direction, although polls show independence still doesn’t have a majority. But in a sense, that is irrelevant. When almost half the population wants something, that “something” has to be addressed — and if Buck is right about the demographics, time is running out for Madrid.

Sitting on Bayonets

There are other serious constitutional issues that need to be addressed as well. Rural areas are greatly favored over cities. While it takes 125,000 voters in Madrid to elect a representative, in some rural areas it takes as few as 38,000. There is also a need to address Rajoy’s draconian laws against free speech and assembly.

Just how stable Sanchez’s government will be is unclear. He must keep the Basques and the Catalans on board and do enough on the economy to maintain the support of Podemos.

The PP is badly wounded, and the right-wing Ciudadanos Party — the only one that voted against the no confidence resolution that brought down Rajoy — will be looking to fill that vacuum. Ciudadanos calls itself the “center,” but its economic policies are the same as those of the PP, and it is rabidly opposed to separatism. It performed poorly in the last election and in regional elections in Galicia and the Basque region. It did well in the recent Catalan elections, but that is because the Popular Party collapsed and its voters shifted to Ciudadanos.

Sanchez must recognize that the Catalan issue is political, not legal, and that force is not an option. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister Talleyrand once remarked, “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” summing up the truism that repression does not work in the long run.


The post Can Spain’s Socialists Avoid Their Past Pitfalls? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at and 

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Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too.

Foreign Policy in Focus - Wed, 06/13/2018 - 1:11pm


Some critics have knocked President Trump for making “too many concessions” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the historic Singapore Summit — the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and North Korean leader.

Trump’s foreign policy instincts have had me white-knuckled for the past year and a half. But against a backdrop of possible nuclear war, it would be overly cynical not to recognize the meeting’s potential for good.

At best, the meeting set the stage for North Korea’s denuclearization — and possibly even an end to the nearly 70-year-old, stalemated Korean War. If you’re against war, this is a good development.

Just six months ago, reasonable people had reasonable fears of the world’s first two-sided nuclear war, as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traded middle-school insults and flaunted their nuclear arsenals.

There are still countless ways the negotiations could go wrong, and real reasons to fear that hardline members of the administration — and its opposition, too — would allow that to happen. But diplomacy offers chances for bigger gains, and smaller losses, than war.

Unfortunately, the U.S. spends more than 20 times more on war and militarism than we do on diplomacy each year.

Our choices have been stark.

The U.S. chose war in Iraq over diplomacy in 2003. Our leaders chose certain risk over likely rewards by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. And they chose a lone plunge backward over a carefully planned march forward when they stepped back from the Paris climate accord before that.

This must not happen when it comes to the North Korea negotiations.

The costs of war are horrifying. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the U.S. $5.6 trillion, and 6,800 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives. That doesn’t include non-fatal casualties, or the human and economic costs of PTSD and family stress that echo far beyond the battlefield.

And it doesn’t count the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who have been needlessly killed throughout our warzones. A full-scale war with North Korea would likely be many times worse.

The North Korea negotiations are far from over, and could still tip from a fragile diplomacy back to middle-school insults and perhaps even to war. But we can and should be more optimistic than that. Diplomacy isn’t just the better way. It’s the only way.

For the Korean talks to work, this administration will have to value diplomacy more than it did in its narrow-minded rejection of the Iran deal. It will have to value diplomacy more than it did when it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement.

There’s so much to gain from open communication and keeping our word. And there’s so much more to lose if we allow things to fall apart.

The post Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too. appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, which published an earlier version of this piece. Distributed by

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Electronic Intifada - Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:40pm

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Call It ‘Unileaderism’: Trump’s Foreign Policy of One

Foreign Policy in Focus - Wed, 06/13/2018 - 11:52am


In the wake of the disastrous G7 meeting in Canada and the successful summit in Singapore, it’s hard to know what to call U.S. foreign policy these days.

It’s not just unilateralism, where Washington acts alone and allies be damned. Nor is it merely unipolarism, in which the United States targets all hegemonic challengers in an effort to preserve its position as the world’s dominant military and economic power.

Let’s coin a new term: unileaderism.

According to unileaderism, only the U.S. president makes foreign policy decisions of any import. Those decisions do not betray any strategic thinking. They may well be contradictory. And they often leave other members of the administration — not to mention Congress and the American people — totally baffled.

Unileaderism, at least as it’s embodied by Donald Trump, is a philosophy bound up entirely in the personal quirks of the president himself. Instead of strategy, there are only tactics: wheedling, bluffing, threatening. It’s like playing tennis against someone with John McEnroe’s legendary temper and will to win, but few if any of his actual skills.

Neither unilateralism nor unipolarism can explain the spectacle of the last week, when Trump blasted U.S. allies at the G7 meeting in Canada and then blasted off for Singapore to negotiate with the leader of the longest standing adversary of the United States. Only unileaderism can capture this surreal reversal of traditional U.S. foreign policy norms.

The summit with Kim Jong Un was Trump at his most theatrical. He flattered the North Korean tyrant and signed a declaration of little substance. He showed off his limousine. He played Kim a White House-produced video crafted to appeal to the North Korea leader’s vanity and nationalism (for instance, by juxtaposing images from North Korea with those from around the world, by barely mentioning South Korea, and by ignoring China and Japan altogether).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled that Trump sat down with Kim and initiated a détente between the two countries. Trump’s pledge to stop war games with South Korea is a major step forward. As for the declaration, it was a good thing, not a bad thing, that it didn’t go into details. North Korea doesn’t want to denuclearize immediately, and Trump doesn’t really understand the particulars of the process anyway. Anything more detailed would have been a conversation stopper.

But the mutual respect that the two leaders expressed was all about unileaderism: their preference to rule without any regard for democracy or human rights. The format of their 30-minute colloquy was telling: just the two leaders with their translators and no advisors. It was a throwback to the diplomacy of yesteryear, when royals met to determine the boundaries of their respective kingdoms.

The contretemps in Quebec was far more disturbing. Trump refused to sign the G7 declaration, continued to pursue tariffs against major U.S. trading partners, and insulted Canadian leader Justin Trudeau to boot. It was an extraordinary display of presidential pique.

Trump’s tantrum about Trudeau divided his administration into those who leapt into the fracas to slap the Canadian prime minister and those who shifted into high gear to repair the fraying U.S. relationship with its northern neighbor. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer continued to work with his Canadian counterparts to negotiate a new NAFTA. But White House trade advisor Peter Navarro sided with Trump by saying that “there’s a special place in hell” for Trudeau — the kind of epithet once reserved for the mortal enemies of the United States.

It was like something out of Canadian Bacon, the satirical 1995 film about a president hoping to boost his dismal popularity by promoting a war against the Canucks. Has America been suddenly plunged into wag-the-beaver territory?

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposal to bring Russia back into the G7 caught many of his colleagues off guard, including the National Security Council. Methinks the NSC doth protest too much. This is the same president who congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his recent electoral win even though his aides had written “DON’T CONGRATULATE” in all-caps on his briefing notes. This president delights in ignoring even is closest “advisors.”

Trump’s invite to Russia is no surprise. The president wants his buddies at the G7. Angela Merkel is not his buddy. Vladimir Putin is. Trump treats world affairs like it’s an elementary school club.

Unileaderism may well be the logical endpoint for a country that has used unilateralism to preserve its unipolarism. And Trump is certainly the product of a particular tendency within the U.S. political culture that rejects liberalism and multilateralism.

But it goes beyond that. In its rejection of strategy in favor of tactics, Trumpism is a repudiation of geopolitics altogether. Trumpism isn’t a new kind of opening in the chess game of international relations. The president, out of rage and stupidity and arrogance, has simply picked up the board with all of its pieces and flung the whole thing against the wall. He’s playing a different game altogether.

The Trump Doctrine

Ordinarily when pundits come up with a doctrine to define an administration’s approach to the world, they put a label on a collective stance — even though the label inevitably goes by the president’s name.

In the case of the Trump doctrine, however, the philosophy points more to the president’s gut instincts rather than an approach hammered out by a group of “Vulcans” (in the case of George W. Bush) or a set of liberal internationalists (Barack Obama). The Trump doctrine boils down to Trump. And the word “doctrine” is something of an overstatement.

In this week’s Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg canvassed administration officials for their one-sentence characterization of this Trump Doctrine. Goldberg narrowed it down to the pugnacious phrase: “We’re America, Bitch.”

The phrase reveals the Trump approach for what it is: sexual harassment.

When he calls other leaders “weak,” Trump is resorting to the old playground epithet: they are “pussies.” And, as he put it so indelicately in the Access Hollywood tape, he feels perfectly free to grab them by the pussies. The president is using the power invested in his office to take what he wants.

Rape, it has often been said, is not about sex: it’s about power. Having divided the international community into female (Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau) and male (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un), Trump is now buddying up with his locker-room pals and boasting of how’s taken advantage of the “weaker sex.”

Goldberg writes:

To Trump’s followers, “We’re America, Bitch” could be understood as a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer respects American power and privilege. To much of the world, however, and certainly to most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy, “We’re America, Bitch” would be understood as self-isolating, and self-sabotaging.

Sexual harassment, thanks to the #MeToo movement, has become self-sabotaging. Has the G7 just had their #MeToo moment? Perhaps America’s top allies are finished with appeasing Trump and saying “yes” when they really mean “no.” I look forward to the photo op with Merkel and Macron both wearing their pink pussyhats in solidarity with Trump protesters worldwide.

The End of Geopolitics?

The G7 represents the liberal international order: an attempt by the world’s top economies to manage disputes and develop a common commitment to certain principles like free trade. The grouping is an acknowledgment that global capitalism can’t survive by the “invisible hand” alone and needs the guidance of many hands.

The G7 has been spectacularly ineffective in addressing the major issues of the time: global poverty and inequality, climate change, pandemics. It doesn’t represent robust multilateralism. It leaves out obvious players like China and India. It makes no effort to represent voices of the powerless.

Still, the G7 has been a very modest check on both U.S. unilateralism and unipolarism. And now it’s emerging as a counterbalance to Trump’s unileaderism. The president’s combative trade policies and indiscriminate use of personal invective are uniting much of the world against the United States. The approval rating of the United States, across 134 countries, dropped in two years from 48 percent to 30 percent, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

On the other hand, the American public’s satisfaction with U.S. standing in the world reached a 13-year high in 2018, a worrisome sign for those of us pushing for progressive foreign policy alternatives. Trump’s unileaderism strikes a chord with a segment of the American public. It’s not just the Russians who crave an “iron fist” leader.

Trump’s tactics run afoul of the basic laws of geopolitics: identifying long-term goals, developing corresponding strategies, and cultivating key allies to achieve those goals. The allies that Trump has cultivated — Poland, Hungary, Russia, North Korea, the Philippines — don’t advance any particular national security interests. They reflect only the personal preferences of Trump himself.

According to a progressive take on foreign policy, the United States should relinquish its unipolar status as part of a transition to a peaceful multilateral order. Trump’s unileaderism won’t, in the end, preserve this unipolar status. It will ultimately destroy the international community and the very possibility of geopolitics. As the United States sinks further into aggressive resentment, the world will splinter into hundreds of “Make [My Country] Great Again” warring factions.

Bush Times Ten

Beginning with the Reagan administration, the concept of a “unitary executive” has gathered force in both constitutional law and presidential practice. According to this theory, the president controls the entire executive branch. So, for instance, George W. Bush expanded presidential power through his use of signing statements that reinterpreted legislative decisions.

Trump has taken this concept to a whole new level with his meddling in the Russiagate investigations and his willingness to pardon everyone indicted in the matter, even himself. Here’s a president who can’t seem to wait to get rid of his chief of staff because he no longer wants to have anyone managing him. Trump can’t be bothered with briefings because he prefers to make decisions based on some cocktail of his own hormonal urges and what he gleans, often mistakenly, from Fox News.

Unileaderism raises the doctrine of the unitary executive to the power of 10. It’s bad enough that a deeply insecure man-boy has latched on to this doctrine. Much worse will happen when a canny adult adopts the same approach. Trumpism without Trump would finalize America’s descent into the maelstrom.

The post Call It ‘Unileaderism’: Trump’s Foreign Policy of One appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.

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