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International Solidarity in a Time of Crisis

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 2:34pm


The spread of coronavirus should be a reminder that the most pressing crises of our times know no borders.

But while the death toll continues to climb in the United States, political leaders, including Donald Trump, are taking advantage of this moment of crisis to heighten xenophobia and racism. Meanwhile his administration helps funnel billions of dollars towards a corporate slush fund with the new stimulus package, all while frontline healthcare workers are left without necessary protective equipment.

Addressing all the various crises exposed by the coronavirus pandemic — from austerity-driven cuts to healthcare to ramped up racism and xenophobia to economic inequality — requires a holistic response dependent on international cooperation. Justice is Global, a project of the grassroots organizing network People’s Action, convened a digital gathering to plot out a progressive internationalist response to the global pandemic.

Andrea Chu, an organizer with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, pointed out how highly impacted the Asian American community has been by coronavirus, which includes many of the frontline workers hit hardest by public health concerns. “A lot of us are fighting COVID-19 along with the rampant hate that Trump has fueling with his anti-China rhetoric.”

Xenophobia has continued to rise as coronavirus spreads. Asian Americans reported more than 650 racist attacks over the course of a single week in mid-March. A House resolution sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng calls on all congressional representatives to condemn anti-Asian sentiment.

“We know anti-Asian racism doesn’t help us during this crisis,” Chu went on to say, “but global cooperation does.”

Deborah Burger of National Nurses United stressed the same.“This virus knows no borders, and it recognizes no nationality, no race, no ethnicity, and certainly no immigration status or economic status,” Burger said.

National Nurses United helped lead the formation of Global Nurses United seven years ago, bringing together global healthcare worker unions on all continents to talk about shared issues — attacks on public health, austerity, privatization, and the climate crisis. Now, COVID-19 has united them more than ever before. Through a webinar, nurses from around the world told stories from the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, shared advice from successful campaigns, and came together to demand higher standards for protective gear from the World Health Organization.

But despite advance warning, the United States was far from prepared to meet those standards. “The COVID-19 response team from the Trump administration and our corporate healthcare employers has been an utter disaster,” Burger announced, pointing out that the U.S. had three months to prepare for the pandemic.

“It is incredibly frustrating that we as a nation can make beanie babies, and we can make fidget toys, and we can make pet rocks overnight. Yet we can’t get masks that we need for our healthcare workers.” Burger said. “That is criminal and war profiteering.”

As OxFam’s Ana Avendano noted, a true internationalist response must also take into account the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live without any legal or practical protections during this crisis. The situation is especially concerning for those caged in detention centers under conditions that were horrifying long before the spread of the virus. Rather than being freed, the only morally acceptable response, people detained at centers run by private prison giant GEO Group have been pepper sprayed simply for asking questions and expressing their fears about the pandemic, Avendano added.

Private prison operators tear-gassing asylum seekers is only one example of continued aggressive U.S. militarism, even amidst crisis, as Khury Petersen-Smith of the Institute for Policy Studies shared. Many celebrated as the Navy sent a hospital ship to New York Just days before, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, ramping up hostilities with Iran as that country manages its own crushing coronavirus outbreak.

Right-wing figures are also using the virus to ramp up hostility towards China — a bipartisan maneuver, Petersen-Smith noted, with historic roots that include the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. “As Trump and the right wing, and some Democrats in power, pursue anti-Chinese hostility, they’re really drawing on a deep well of hostility and racism. And the results are disastrous.”

“If we’re going to survive this,” Petersen-Smith said, “we really are all in this together and we need international cooperation, rather than hostility and racism and competition.”

Justice is Global’s Tobita Chow echoed the call for cooperation. Some countries have stepped up to share masks, medical staff, and other resources across borders. Within the United States, Chinese-American associations collected supplies to send to China when the country was hardest hit by the crisis. That flow of resources has now reversed. International cooperation is built from the ground up, including through programs like sister city relationships as well as unions like National Nurses United, Chow noted.

“I think this moment of global pandemic is showing us very clearly that all human life is interrelated, which means that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.”

To get involved, check out the Justice is Global call to action.

The post International Solidarity in a Time of Crisis appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of

We Need a Coronavirus Truce

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 2:25pm


During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas.

It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German soldiers participated. They exchanged smokes, sang together, and even, on at least one occasion that has since been widely mythologized, played a game of soccer.

Imagine how different the world would look today if that truce had held, if it had turned into a lasting ceasefire, if Europe had not burned itself to the ground in a fit of nationalist pique. There might not have been a global flu epidemic spread by soldiers in 1918. The Nazis might not have seized power and precipitated the Holocaust. World War II might never have happened and nuclear weapons never used.

At the very least, nearly 20 million people would not have perished in that first world war.

We are now in the early stages of another world war, call it World War III, this time against the common enemy of pandemic. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week called on all countries to observe a global ceasefire to focus all resources on beating back the coronavirus. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, eight countries that have been suffering under economic sanctions — China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela — have appealed for an end to the economic sanctions that are hampering their efforts to battle the disease.

And a number of civil organizations are pressing for the release of political prisoners, jailed journalists, and as many nonviolent offenders as possible to reduce the crowding that makes prisons a potential killing ground for the coronavirus.

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback to the idea of even temporarily ending these three expressions of state power: military conflict, war by economic means, and mass incarceration. But this pandemic, for all of its ongoing horrors, can serve as a jolt of smelling salts. International cooperation needs to take priority right now, and countries must stop their wars against one another and against their own populations.

Bombs, sanctions, and prisons are not effective tools in the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, by aiding and abetting the enemy, they will only make the war worse.

Silencing the Guns?

There has been much talk of repurposing the U.S. military to fight the coronavirus. Two Army field hospitals have been sent to New York and Seattle. Some soldiers have already been deployed, the National Guard has been activated in three states, and the Pentagon has been authorized to call up former soldiers to help in the fight. But the military is, to use an apt simile, like a large battleship that is not easily turned. The Pentagon hasn’t even allowed immigrant doctors in its ranks to help against the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to pursue its prime directive: planning war and killing people. On March 12, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to attacks that killed two U.S. service personnel. It was billed as a “proportional” response. Yet the Pentagon has been pushing a far more ambitious plan to go to war against Iranian proxies and, ultimately, Iran itself.

“Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country,” write Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

In nearby Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal at the end of February. But any end to the war in Afghanistan will require a truce among the factions within the country, indeed within the government itself. After a disputed presidential election that once again pitted President Ashraf Ghani against chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, even the threat of reduced U.S. aid didn’t persuade the two sides to unify.

The fighting continues on the ground, with air strikes against the Taliban most recently on March 24 as well a series of Taliban attacks in the last week against Afghan soldiers and policemen. In the leadup to the signing of the peace agreement, the United States conducted the second highest number of air attacks for the month of February since 2009. And last year, Afghanistan sustained the most U.S. aerial attacks since 2006.

Wars grind on in other parts of the world, pandemic be damned. All sides declared a truce in Syria in early March, but Turkey exchanged attacks with “radical groups” in Idlib province on March 19. This week, Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian military base near Homs. And the Islamic State has indicated that it sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up attacks — like a recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Kabul — because the last thing the “crusaders” want is “to send additional soldiers to regions where there is a chance for a spread of the disease.” However, COVID-19 will most harm Syrian refugees, particularly the recent wave of nearly a million people who fled Idlib and Aleppo in December.

In Libya, both sides of the civil war agreed to a humanitarian truce that evaporated after only a day and now the fighting there has even intensified. Whoever wins Tripoli will take over a capital with an already ravaged infrastructure and a collapsed economy. The Pyrrhic victor will then have to address a mounting health emergency with ever diminishing resources.

Meanwhile in Yemen, which is on track to becoming the poorest country in the world because of its five-year-long war, the combatants agreed to a truce last week. As in Libya, it hasn’t lasted long. The Houthis have since launched some easily intercepted ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by once again bombing Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

Conflicts throughout Africa — in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali — also continue despite pleas for a truce. Neither has al-Shabaab stopped its suicide bombings nor the United States ceased its drone attacks in Somalia.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s no pandemic pause for a series of equally deadly cold wars.

Weaponizing Sanctions

For years, the United States has tried to shut down North Korea’s economic relations with the outside world as a way to force the government to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program. North Korea devised a variety of methods to get around U.S. and UN sanctions, including illicit transfers of oil from foreign ships to North Korean vessels in the middle of the ocean.

But the most lucrative source of goods and revenues continued to be China, which has been responsible for upwards of 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Washington has intermittently put pressure on Beijing to shut down this trade to pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. It hasn’t worked.

Then the coronavirus hit. By the end of January, North Korea had shut its borders with China to minimize the risk of infection. It even issued a directive to guard posts to put a stop to flourishing smuggling operations. What sanctions couldn’t accomplish in years, the virus managed to achieve in weeks.

Despite these precautionary measures, the coronavirus has no doubt reached North Korea. There have been reports of probable coronavirus-related deaths in the North Korean military. Thousands of people have been quarantined. Even as the North Korean government insists that the country remains pandemic-free, it has quietly appealed to other governments for assistance in addressing the disease.

The United States has so far held firm. Even though sanctions are holding up the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, Washington has refused to reconsider sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo continues to talk as if a pandemic isn’t raging outside: “The G-7 and all nations must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Pompeo has been even more ruthless toward Iran, an early pandemic hotspot. Tehran initially fumbled its response to a disease, which was quickly spreading through the populace as well as the political and religious leadership. As Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed, U.S. economic sanctions have only made a bad situation worse.

Yes, the U.S. government formally permits humanitarian aid to the country. But its sanctions regime — which includes the threat of secondary sanctions against entities that engage Tehran — ensures that banks and companies steer clear of Iran. Pompeo’s take: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That’s also pretty much the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela, which is in an even more vulnerable position. Though it only has a little more than 130 confirmed cases, COVID-19 will likely ravage the weakened country. “Only a quarter of Venezuela’s doctors have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without soap, gloves or masks,” reports The Guardian. “There are 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.”

This week, the Trump administration conditioned any reduction in sanctions on a political deal that requires President Nicolas Maduro to step down in favor of a transitional council that includes the political opposition. The current government has rejected this regime-change option.

These maximum pressure tactics toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others recently led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who is no softy on foreign affairs, to conclude that Pompeo’s “pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever” secretaries of state.

Emptying the Prisons

Egypt freed 15 prominent oppositionists on March 21. A few days earlier, Bahrain let go nearly 1,500 detainees, but no prominent human rights activists or political oppositionists. Iran has released 85,000 prisoners, but only temporarily. Turkey is planning to release 90,000 prisoners, but none of them political.

Prisons are the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus: poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, minimal medical facilities. Many countries, including the United States, are looking into ways of reducing the population behind bars.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is mobilizing support to pressure governments to release the 250 journalists who are currently in prison worldwide. UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to reduce the numbers of people in detention, with a special emphasis on political prisoners. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she said last week.

Those behind bars are frequently the victims of various government campaigns: against a free press, against political dissent, against drugs. But when a major war threatens the homeland, prisoners are sometimes drafted into military service. That happened during the French colonial period and by different sides in World War II.

In World War III, we need everyone on our side. If countries don’t significantly empty out their prisons during this COVID-19 crisis, the inmates as well as the guards will likely be drafted by the enemy. This foe only gets stronger as our petty conflicts continue and the stiffest sanctions remain in place.

It’s time for a truce on all fronts — or else we will surely lose the larger war.

The post We Need a Coronavirus Truce appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

The Coronavirus and China-U.S. Relations

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 2:18pm

PAS China via Flickr

One of the unavoidable consequences of political analysis is an out-of-the-blue event that upends apparent trends. For both the United States and China, that event is the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged as both governments were celebrating a trade deal and yet also clashing on other issues. The response to the pandemic in both capitals has been similar, framed by autocratic governing styles and serious mistakes in judgment that have undermined public trust. Sino-U.S. relations have also suffered at a time when a global humanitarian crisis might be one vehicle to revitalize engagement.

Both the Chinese and U.S. governments were initially unwilling to face scientific facts, were late in responding to people’s needs, and tended to blame others. Narrow political considerations dictated their initial blindness to reality and a cover-up of vital information.  Neither system is a model of preemptive action in a pandemic.

But there are at least four important differences between Donald Trump’s leadership and Xi Jinping’s. First, whereas Xi recognized the scope of the crisis within a month and took radical steps to lock down the Wuhan area, Trump, during January and February, failed to act on reports from health experts and intelligence officials, including ignoring a pandemic “playbook” put together by Obama’s emergency preparedness team. Trump’s focus has been on the economy—falling production, unemployment, and a stock market crash—and not on public health, as suggested by his comment that coronavirus fatalities were small compared with those caused by the flu and auto accidents. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted on March 22—the unacceptable “cure” being shutting the country down to prevent out-of-control infections. By the end of March, infections surpassed 120,000, and Trump’s top two advisers on COVID-19 estimated that there would eventually be between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths.

Second, Trump didn’t use all the tools at his disposal to contain the virus. He took far too long to activate National Guard units and the Army Corps of Engineers. He initially resisted pressure to use his power under the 1950 Defense Production Act to order industries to produce critical equipment, such as ventilators, leaving it to states to work out deals with private industry while also competing with each other. His appointees in the bureaucracies responsible for public health were slow to grasp the enormity of the virus and gird for mass testing.

Third, some Chinese media and officials hold the United States responsible for the coronavirus, but not Xi (at least publicly). But Trump, some of his top advisers, and the right-wing media scapegoat China, employing racist language to boot. Trump has wondered aloud why China took “three or four months” to let the United States know about the virus, when in fact China identified the problem late in December 2019 and then shared the genetic code with U.S. scientists. He is among those who insist on calling the virus “Chinese” or “Wuhan”—a characterization that legitimizes growing anti-Chinese resentment around the United States.

Fourth, China has become the leading international donor of supplies and expertise to countries where the COVID-19 infection rate is especially high, including Italy, German, Spain, the United States. Of course, these donations have propaganda value and are meant in part to mask the mistakes at Wuhan. But China has emerged from the virus and is providing foreign aid to fight it, in comparison to the United States, which has shortages of essential equipment and no national strategy for obtaining it. This contrast speaks volumes about how world leadership is changing.

Unfortunately, one other leadership difference is that China is using the COVID-19 crisis to increase surveillance. To better identify carriers of the virus, all Chinese must register by cell phone for an app that separates the healthiest from the most vulnerable. But the data also gives police authorities another tool to locate and monitor individuals. This is occurring as large numbers of Internet police, who belong to a little-known cybersecurity force within the public security bureau, are searching for dissidents. Some prominent human rights advocates who have criticized Xi’s handling of the virus have been jailed, including law professor Xu Zhangrun, book publisher Gui Minhai, legal activist Xu Zhiyong, and real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang.

The Backward Drift of Relations

Until the onset of COVID-19, the U.S. view of China had been dictated by trade talks.  Widespread violations of human rights norms in China—the mass incarceration of Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the attempts to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and the jailing of regime critics—got only mild and inconsistent notice from the Trump administration. When the virus hit Wuhan, Trump was advised by cabinet members and public health experts to ban travelers from China. He hesitated out of concern about a ban’s impact on trade talks and the U.S. economy. The ban went into effect at the end of January 2020, but Trump praised Xi’s handling of the virus on several occasions. He said at that time, for example, that China was “working very hard” to stop it and, throughout February, that China was showing “great discipline” under Xi’s “extremely capable” leadership. These remarks were made at the very time that Trump was ignoring warnings from within the administration of an impending pandemic.

Now the talk in Washington is about economic and technological decoupling with China. But the decoupling is not over human rights issues, which have never interested the Trump administration. Cybersecurity and a pandemic, however, are of great interest, since both affect U.S. industry and trade, and Trump’s chances of reelection. Casting China as a security threat is an easy way to garner support on Capitol Hill these days. A new bipartisan consensus on China has emerged, with some liberals joining with conservatives to argue the need to confront China’s across-the-board efforts to influence American opinion.

COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity for cooperation that is being squandered by xenophobic outbursts. At a time of an international public health crisis, we need more, not less, interaction with China. Cutting back people-to-people and other exchanges, closing down Confucius Institutes, imposing immigration and visa restrictions, limiting technology transfers, reclassifying Chinese media offices in the United States as foreign operations, and putting Chinese nationals and Americans of Chinese heritage who work in U.S. laboratories and universities automatically under suspicion is nothing less than a new Red Scare. Yes, China has engaged in cyber hacking, stolen technical secrets, and spied on sensitive US installations. Yes, in a few cases Confucius Institutes on American campuses have been kept from putting on programs on Taiwan and Tibet. And yes, some American scientists have accepted research positions in China that are more attractive, in money and equipment, than anything available at their home universities. But there is no evidence that these events are part of some Chinese master plan to compromise U.S. national security. They should not become a pretext for making unfounded accusations or threatening universities with loss of federal funds.

Is China really “the central threat of our times,” as Pompeo said in London in January 2020? The Trump administration evidently thinks so. But politically motivated sanctions that hold up China as an enemy foreclose opportunities for cooperation and encourage retaliation, which Beijing has conducted against the United States and other foreign journalists and NGOs since the trade war began. Sanctions and other negative incentives also fail to project the best of American society and democratic values—not to mention doing nothing to alleviate China’s repressive policies. Policy-specific criticism of and competition with China, on the other hand, are certainly in order—for  instance, on human rights violations, Asia-Pacific trade and investments, and technology advances such as 5G networks. Also appropriate are actions against unfair Chinese practices, such as harassing journalists, receiving low-interest World Bank loans, and ignoring foreign investors’ intellectual property rights. But “reciprocity” and fairness should not be confused with containment.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement last year – that Beijing poses “a new kind of challenge; an authoritarian regime that’s integrated economically into the West in ways that the Soviet Union never was” – ignores the fond wish of U.S. leaders for many years that China embrace globalization. Also forgotten is that competition is supposed to be the American way—until now, when China is outcompeting the United States. Vice President Mike Pence has twice given major speeches on China policy, each time sounding like a cold warrior disappointed in China for failing to liberalize and determined that China’s “provocations” will be answered forcefully. “So far,” said Pence, “it appears the Chinese Communist Party continues to resist a true opening or a convergence with global norms,” by which he clearly meant compliance with U.S. policy preferences. Neither he nor Pompeo had anything to say about how U.S. policies, notably the trade war, have contributed not only to tensions with China but also to developments elsewhere contrary to US interests, such as deteriorating U.S. relations with South Korea and increased Russia-China military cooperation.

Competitive Coexistence

Positive relations with China are of far greater importance to U.S. national interests than are relations with Russia. That doesn’t mean that Washington should neglect opportunities for engaging Moscow. Rather, finding common ground with China is essential to maintaining a peaceful international order on such issues as disease control, terrorism, climate change, the international economy, energy, maritime rules of the road, nuclear and conventional weapons proliferation, and aid to developing countries. These are areas where U.S.-China cooperation is crucial to Asia’s and the world’s well-being. Red scares only make the friction worse. Evan Osnos writes that “uneasy coexistence” is the likely future of US-China relations. In policy terms, U.S. relations with China ought to rest on competitive coexistence.

There are at least two fundamental obstacles to finding common ground. The first is how to bridge the great divide between a newly empowered China and a United States used to being number one. The challenge here comes down to different notions about the international order—what is its essential aspect, who should define it, and how should it be maintained. For the United States, the international order is rules-based, it is defined by the post-World War II institutions that the United States led in creating, and it should be led first and foremost by Washington.  China’s role should be that of “responsible stakeholder,” as Robert Zoellick famously said in 2005. For China, on the other hand, the international order is multipolar, demanding creation of a “new kind of great power relationship” in which China’s role is that of a “responsible great power.” These differences over global responsibility and rule-making will persist for some time. Although they need not inhibit finding common ground, they will be a constant source of friction unless directly addressed.

The second challenge in U.S.-China engagement is that both leaderships share a dangerous insecurity. They both operate out of fear. China worries about popular demands for democratic reforms, social protest, an independent media, and economic downturns that create instability. The Trump administration fears democracy, avoids accountability, is contemptuous of the rule of law, and is plagued by corruption and constant internal friction. It faces a population deeply divided over national priorities, culture, race relations, and even the coronavirus, with Democrats far more fearful than Republicans about its effects on health. Both leaderships fear the foreigner, whether that takes the form of reducing immigration or weeding out non-native influences.

Significant portions of both the Chinese and American populations are angry and lacking confidence in their leaders. Political leaderships thus confronted, and convinced of their righteousness, may lash out in a variety of directions. Trade wars, tit-for-tat responses in diplomatic disputes, and military confrontations are all possible. Promoting conspiracy theories and demonizing the other are to be expected. The times call for mutual restraint, recognizing that the latest pandemic, like climate change and mass migrations, can only be effectively dealt with through international collaboration.

The post The Coronavirus and China-U.S. Relations appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and Senior Editor of Asian Perspective.  His most recent books are Engaging Adversaries: Peacemaking and Diplomacy in the Human Interest (Roman & Littlefield, 2018) and America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump (Roman & Littlefield, forthcoming in 2020). He blogs at