Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump

The state of international relations isn’t great. Obama has been a very cautious leader, and while he’s avoided anything terrible, he also hasn’t solved anything. Overall, I think he’s done fine. But now the US has a choice. More Obama (Clinton) or Trump (shit, literally a piece of shit). With the current babbling that Trump pretends are words, it’s worth looking at issues with US foreign policy.

First, I want to go over a few issues with the Trump campaign in terms of international diplomacy (in other words, forget about the race baiting, the blind religious intolerance, and let’s just stick with pure foreign policy).

It starts with wanting to disband NATO even while being unaware of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. There’s the disquieting fact that one of Trump’s advisers was the architect of Viktor Yanukovych’s campaign for reelection before the protests (during which police snipers murdered quite a few protesters) and subsequent flight of Yanukovych. Here’s a tidbit from a very interesting article that frames the situation nicely:

Mr. Manafort has already had some success, with former Yanukovych loyalists — and some Communists — forming a new bloc opposing Ukraine’s struggling pro-Western government. And now Mr. Manafort has taken on a much larger campaign, seeking to turn Donald J. Trump into a winning presidential candidate.

There’s the fact that he wants to DESTROY our trade relationship with China in spite of the fact that if we did that, everything we buy would be way, way more expensive. It’s something people don’t seem to think about when they talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs. Anyway, back to foreign policy.

There’s the troublesome praise of petty tyrants like Saddam and Kim Jong Un, not to mention Putin, Assad, and Gaddaffi. And even as he praises Assad, he wants to get the US involved in another war in the Middle East, or maybe he’s changed his mind and now he wants to magically make Turkey go single-handedly defeat ISIS? It’s impossible to say.

I probably failed to mention something. In fact, I didn’t even mean to write that much. So let’s go back to the issues with NATO. Is there any merit in somehow forcing the other members to do more? Well, that’s a thorny issue. How would we do that? By somehow renegotiating trade deals? Because that sounds like a titanic task that would require a lot of things to go right. The fact is, we have no real way of making our allies up their commitment. The only real thing we can do is lower our commitments, thereby putting them in danger.

The horrible thing is, Trump is (shudder) right (gag) about one thing. Our allies in NATO aren’t carrying their weight. If Estonia is so afraid of being invaded, they need to start acting like it. THey need to militarize like crazy. Of course, no doubt that would be met by an equal militarization and further breakdown of relations between Estonia and Russia. The same goes for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. So what does this mean? Does that preclude these countries from building up their armies?

One thing that I do know is these countries do have something to fear. Russia fought an actual war with Georgia to snip away Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia outright invaded Crimea and then quietly send their “little green men” into Ukraine. If I lived in Latvia, I would be very worried about Putin trying something like that.

So, if we know there’s something to fear and there’s no good way to beef up the threatened countries without the US unilaterally doing it alone (which is a bad idea and would definitely escalate the issues), then what options are there? If Latvia won’t spend the money and the UK won’t spend the money, is it really the obligation of the US to potentially get involved in a massively destructive conflict? And if the answer is no, are we really going to let international bullies run free?

Personally, I think the United States is the reason there’s been no wars between nations (that is, excluding civil wars like Libya, South Sudan, Syria, etc). The US is the world police, for good or for ill. Once the US stops doing that, all hell is going to break loose. There will be wars between nations primarily led by dictators. It will be bad. Is it so expensive that the US can’t afford (literally use of afford) to head off these conflicts? Isn’t it better to be the pushy world cop than to let open warfare come to the fore? I don’t know. My gut says yes, but the chance of being wrong is potentially catastrophic. Global thermonuclear war, anyone?

Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Monroe Doctrine, so here’s a primer. The Monroe Doctrine started off as a rather innocent way of declaring that the European powers of the day wouldn’t be allowed to form any new colonies in the Americas. Obviously, it was more complicated than that, but it doesn’t matter because the real issue with the Monroe Doctrine came much, much later. During the Cold War, the US used the Monroe Doctrine as an excuse to do a bunch of slimy, disgusting stuff in an attempt to stop communism from spreading.

In reality, the Monroe Doctrine was basically saying that the Americas were the domain of the US and the US alone. No other country was allowed to intervene, only us. It was basically a statement of regional imperialism. As I said, slimy. Yet, now that the US is a global power, even THE global power, we can no longer support the type of actions we used to perform under the Monroe Doctrine. We can’t overthrow a regime just because we don’t like it. In terms of the public perception and voter power, the best we can do is something like the no fly zone in Libya. We can’t go in and assassinate people, or arm people. At least, if it were revealed that the CIA was doing that, not only would the world be furious, but the American people would punish whoever allowed it. Of that, I am certain. Even if it was the US assassinating Putin or some such nonsense.

The point of bringing up the Monroe Doctrine is to discuss regional supremacy. As in, is it okay for Russia to claim regional supremacy? How about China? When China claims the South China Sea in the Chinese equivalent to the Monroe Doctrine, is that okay?

First off, my gut says no. Regional supremacy was scummy when the US did it and it’s no less scummy when other countries do it. The problem is imperialism. The US might not be great when it comes to being world cop (the debacle of the Iraq War comes to mind), but at the same time, are we really going to let China muscle in? My gut says the US is right to do freedom of navigation patrols and potentially antagonize China.

Look at Vietnam. They fought a war with the US. But you know who else they fought a war with? China. Cambodia. Ever heard of the Khmer Rouge? They were insane, murderous, and terrible in every way. China backed the Khmer Rouge because it was ostensibly a communist movement (it was also insane). Yet, for some mind numbing reason, Pol Pot was absolutely certain that Vietnam wanted to destroy Cambodia, so he intentionally and repeatedly slaughtered Vietnamese villages on the border (also purged everyone inside Cambodia who might be Vietnamese). In the end, Vietnam really had no choice but to go secure the border, and when the attacks wouldn’t stop, they took over all of Cambodia and removed the scourge that was the Khmer Rouge.

And the entire world sanctioned them. China was furious and immediately invaded Vietnam. The two had several border wars. They had conflicts in the South China Sea. Now Vietnam is allied with the US because China is a regional power that wants to bully them.

Stepping back, let’s view this through the Trump lens. Consider that China and the US are best buddies when it comes to trade. We need each other. Our relations are good and strong in that regard. A real war between the US and China would be horrific for both sides. This ain’t no US/Russia conflict. And what does Trump want to do? He wants to destroy that bond.

So consider our options here. Either we have regional power players who bully their neighbors and simply take what they want, or we have a very expensive apparatus funded by US taxpayers to prevent truly devastating wars. These are the options. People like Putin who seize the reigns of power are bullies and you have to have someone to stand up to them, so stare them down and warn them off. Trump wouldn’t be that guy. Trump would smile and talk about how Putin is a GREAT guy.

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Remember when South Carolina was gassed with Chlorine?

From a retrospective article:

Graniteville shook the morning of Jan. 6, 2005, when a Norfolk Southern train smashed into a parked rail car in the yard at Avondale Mills, the community’s major employer.

A railroad crew that had parked the rail car forgot to flip a track switch, causing the swift-moving Norfolk Southern train, engineered by Chris Seeling, to divert off the main track and onto a side rail. There, it collided with the parked tanker car, carrying chlorine. The tanker car ruptured, prompting a flurry of 911 calls from people afraid of the poisonous gas that blanketed Graniteville. All told, 11,500 gallons of chlorine seeped out.

The rail yard of Avondale Mills was gassed. The trains collided and this random local company was hit with 11,500 gallons of motherfucking chlorine gas.

“I don’t want to be alone; I can’t breathe,’’ an Avondale Mills worker told a 911 dispatcher at the time.

“My lungs hurt so much. Oh God! I don’t know if I’m going to make it or not.’’

And that’s just one person at the time. In another article, a worker at the mill offered up this:

“We worked with bleach and enzymes and had bleach ranges where we actually bleached the cloth white,” Smith said. “When we started smelling the bleach, we thought we had a ruptured pipe. So, instead of trying to get away from the smell, we were actually going to the part of the plant where it smelled the worst to try to find it. It was probably 30 to 45 minutes after the train wreck before we realized it was something that had happened outside the plant.”

Now that sounds pretty bad, but it gets worse:

The Gregg Plant sits on low ground below street level in a valley, and chlorine gas is two-and-a-half times heavier than air and tends to sink to the ground and flow downhill. Also, dozens of ventilation fans designed to cool the plant on both sides of the building pumped the gas into the plant.

Nine people died from being gassed to death. Nine fucking people were killed, but that’s hardly the total cost. There’s a lot of people still suffering from damage to their lungs. The casualties are far worse than a base statistic of “nine people died.”

Even worse, a lot of the emergency response parroted the standard message of, “stay where you are.” Well, needless to say, it’s a bad idea to stay in a cloud of chlorine gas.

It was bad. It was the kind of thing you expect from previous eras, not 2005. And people are still suffering.

Price Controls and Subsidies

In Venezuela, there’s shortages on various staple foods, including pretty much any meat. Going to the store is a laborious process that people can only go on certain days. Everybody takes their turn. So why are there shortages?

Let’s look at history for a bit of context. During the French Revolution, price controls on bread was one of the main demands of protesters in Paris (you know, the ones who stormed the Bastille and forced Parliament to acquiesce to their demands even though Paris is but one city in a large country). So what happened? Well, there was a shortage of grain, but with the price controls, the vendors couldn’t raise their prices, so they had very little incentive to make it work.

There was no money in making bread. And given the price controls, food ran out even faster (although at least it was equitably distributed), which led to more protests for more food, but there wasn’t more food, just more protesters and more political pressure from the Parisians. The only place to buy bread was on the black market. That led to people thinking rich people were hoarding food to sell at a markup later. That was true at first, but after a while, there simply wasn’t any food. There’s only so many years before all the hidden supplies are gone. But the people didn’t accept that there really wasn’t food.

With all the social disruption, the markets weren’t working very well, so it was harder to import food. Then some of the areas of the country that produced the most grain, which were very religious areas, really started to get pissed off that the secular Parisians were hijacking the political process. Some of the more conservative areas started rebelling, which further restricted the food supply (which ended with nearly every one of them being murdered in what is the most overlooked horror of the French Revolution). In other words, things spiraled way out of control and price controls played some part in that.

A somewhat similar thing happened in Rome, except this time, the price of grain was actually subsidized by the government. When I say Rome, I don’t mean the whole thing, I mean the actual city of Rome and only the city of Rome. Well, as you might expect, this caused a massive influx of people at all times. Food was cheap.

It might not come as a surprise that Rome faced a few grain shortages. During those times, the price of grain shot up. Even if the central government could pay the exorbitant prices, that won’t make food magically appear. So what happens? People buy grain, as much as they can, and then wait until it’s worth more. Thus they make bank and further ensure there will be a shortage. With the promise of food and the lack thereof, the masses got very riled up. And guess what? The black market became the only place to buy bread.

What happens, though, when the black market simply has no more bread? What happens when food just, you know, runs out? Well, people riot because they’re starving.

My point is, overall, price controls and subsidies throw commodities out of whack. That leads to social unrest, protests, and just like in Venezuela, the entire government gets voted out (goodbye Chavistas).

So what about situations where it isn’t food? Let’s say, the price of water is subsidized. For instance, in Iran there’s a water subsidy. Guess what? Iran is fucked. Their farms are drying up. The people using outdated techniques that waste mass amounts of water continue to use those techniques.

In one field, a farmer, Ismael Alizadeh, opened an eight-inch water pipe during the middle of the day, under the burning sun, flooding a field of pistachio trees. “We have always done it like this,” he said with a shrug.

Roughly the same thing happened in California, though for different reasons. California has a peculiar system of water rights that boils down to, first come first serve, so the people with the most senior water rights get to use all the water they want. This led to wildly inefficient farming techniques that wasted tons of water, which helped massively deplete the reservoirs (and continues to do so, although as of late, the state seems to have woken up).

Now, back to the food subsidy programs. I’m not saying that all subsidy is wrong. It’s clearly a good thing to make food affordable to people that can barely afford to buy it. For the same reason as I am 100% in support of food kitchens and shelters for the homeless, I also 100% in favor of subsidizing food for the impoverished among us (in the US, that comes in the form of EBT/Snap/food stamps). This is just a basic humanitarian issue. People need to be able to eat.

Subsidies are best when there is no downside to that thing being used more. In fact, subsidies are great when you want it used more. Like, for instance, alternative energy. Subsidies are fantastic for the promotion of solar power or wind.

We just need to keep in mind that price controls don’t really work during shortages and that subsidies are really only good to promote the use of something.

Austrian restrictions on Islam: Why it’s worse than you think.

Austria just passed a bill putting restrictions on Islam. The two most notable portions break down like this: Imams are required to speak German, which is intended to integrate them into the society, and the law bans foreign funding for mosques, which is intended to prevent influence from Iran and Turkey on Austrian Muslims. Of course, the overall aim is to combat radicalization of Muslim youth.

That said, Austria is one of the few places in Europe that doesn’t have much a problem with its Muslim population. Why, you ask? Well, it boils down to a longstanding relationship with Muslim communities. All throughout the last thousand years, the influence of the Ottoman Empire brought Islam to a great many peoples in the Balkans and and up near Austria. In 1912, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire passed a law that made Islam an official religion.

This was a bid to draw Muslims into the armies, because years of politics and war had stitched together a great many dissimilar peoples under one government. Without unity, the empire would never be able to fend off the Russians under the Czar or the Ottomans. Indeed, two years after the law was passed, World World One began. By the end of the war, the empire had fragmented. For the first time in a long time, Austria became a single country, yet it managed to maintain this 1912 law of inclusiveness.

And here we are in 2015, at a time when Austria enjoys a remarkable degree of religious tolerance and togetherness for a European nation. And here Austria tries to destroy what has taken so long to develop. Over a hundred years of progress can’t disappear all at once, however, so maybe they’ve got a chance to survive the backsliding.

Further reading/sources: An article about a different form of the law from November; background on the 1912 law (search the page for 1912 to jump to it); a BBC brief; a more detailed article from The Local in Austria.

Pray tell, wtf is a Ba’athist?

From Wikipedia:

A Ba’athist society seeks enlightenment, renaissance and rebirth of Arab culture, values and society. It supports the creation ofsingle-party states, and rejects political pluralism in an unspecified length of time – the Ba’ath party theoretically uses an unspecified amount of time to develop an enlightened Arabic society. Ba’athism is based on principles of Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, as well as social progress. It is a secular ideology. A Ba’athist state supports socialist economics to a varying degree, and supports public ownership over the heights of the economy but opposes the confiscation of private property. Socialism in Ba’athist ideology does not mean state socialism or economic equality, but modernisation; Ba’athists believe that socialism is the only way to develop an Arab society which is truly free and united.

The article goes on to note that Syria and Iraq (formerly) are actually neo-Ba’athist, given that they’re not actually Ba’athist, as they didn’t promote pan-Arabism, social progress, or socialism. Essentially, it’s just tyranny hiding under a progressive cloak. But I look at that agenda and I think, you know, maybe REAL Ba’athism is really what Iraq needs right now. There aren’t any, sadly, so instead we’re reminded that once again, when an idealistic group takes over a government, those ideals are often subverted and authoritarianism takes hold.