If President Trump had called out German Chancellor Angela Merkel to her face for Germany’s supposed “captivity” to Russia, instead of yammering at a Norwegian (Stoltenberg) about Germany’s pipeline, I would be ready to say he might have half a point. But as it is, he smiled in the photo shoot with Merkel, and so I have to keep it 100 and call our US president the cowardly weasel he is. It was embarrassing and sickening to see Trump try his “no puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet” routine on Merkel. She had a firm yet courteous response to Trump: I grew up in Russian-controlled East Germany, and am happy to live in a unified and free Germany where we make our own decisions. Other European leaders will, I hope, learn from Merkel’s response to Trump. Trump’s cult followers may be willing to have Trump groom them to see Putin as an ally in the white nationalist cause, but I expect a wave of anti-Trump revulsion this November. European leaders and others will, I hope, hang in there until Trump is cut down to size by actual constitutionally-based oversight from the next House of Representatives.
Among the many “no, really, not-the-Onion” and not-funny-either stories these past few days, Donald Trump throwing Starburst candy at German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spewing out “don’t say I never gave you anything” at her–that is about the stupidest and most disgraceful, despite all the competition for “worst.” Though the Melania Trump jacket that said “I don’t really care, do u” is bad too. The euphemisms and denials are horrible, too: a person who says “tender age shelters” out loud should have their mouths washed out with soap. Yes, I am sure that some celebrities and some so-called “leftists” have been vulgar and rude and profane. I disapprove of their immature behavior. But it is pretty hard to be disrespectful of the office of the presidency these days. I favor a new policy: zero tolerance for criminal behavior by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Did you know lying to Congress is a crime, including lying about your contacts with agents of foreign adversaries such as Russia? I favor zero tolerance for insider trading, which is a felony crime. Hello there Wilbur Ross–have you no shame? I favor zero tolerance for money laundering, even if it means a former campaign manager for a president, a man who, as the president pointed out, has served other presidents (and very possibly other criminals, I might add) over several decades–even so, money laundering is a felony, and there should be zero tolerance for money laundering, otherwise we become infested with money launderers. If a money launderer makes it all the way to the presidency, that person should still face justice, in this life, and with zero tolerance for criminal behavior. Mercy is important too–all in good biblical time, my pretty little Trump.
What if President Ronald Reagan had gone to Berlin and said “we’re moving forward” instead of “tear down this wall”? “Not a lot of relitigating of the past,” reports Rex Tillerson about today’s meeting between the leaders of Russia and the United States. It’s hard to be at all sure about what happened today, but President Trump’s idea of how to represent America (and Western civilization?) is very different from that of Reagan and every other president in my lifetime. Is our president an accessory after the fact (or worse) to Russian espionage and subversion of our constitutional republic? Matt Yglesias has thoughts on that:
Meanwhile the best leader of the free world we have, Angela Merkel, rolls her eyes at Putin and Trump.
The leader of the free world isn’t young any more, but she is making Donald Trump look aged today. He also looks a bit like her long-lost brother. The leader of the free world is a woman after all, how about that! Just so happens her name is Angela Merkel, out of East Germany.
Nigel Farage says it’s up to British politicians to “mend fences” and Kellyanne Conway says Obama and Clinton are obliged to talk protesters down. Don’t be gaslit: they are just working the refs. Obama and Clinton already acknowledge Trump as a legitimately elected president, while Trump all but promised disruption if he had lost. And Trump has said plenty about what he feels are the shortcomings of political leaders in Europe and elsewhere. Those leaders are now obliged, on behalf of their citizens, to deal with Trump. But Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, among others, felt the need to lay down markers. It was stunning to read this from Chancellor Merkel: “Germany and America are bound by common values–democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.” That is flipping the script big league on national stereotypes.
I say Trump should be watched very closely, given the chance to pivot away from his own nastiness, and encouraged to make choices on behalf of everyone he represents–which, for better or worse, is all Americans. We the people always need to be vigilant toward our political representatives. With Trump, just as with a young person, we need especially to be firm, fair, and consistent. Melania knows as well as anyone that we are likely to hear quite a bit of “boy talk”; keeping a watchful grownup eye on our Elagabulus-like boy-emperor is shaping up to be a challenge
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Washington later this week. I am confident she can both chew out President Obama over the NSA’s intrusions on her, and walk the important walk of responding with Obama to Putin’s intrusions on Ukraine. There is a formal equivalence in the sentence above, and I imagine Merkel is not amused at all that her cellphone was (is?) monitored by American signals intelligence. But Putin’s aggressive destabilization of Ukraine is, I think, a threat to the entire post-Cold War order in Europe. Russia was invited into groups such as the World Trade Organization and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, seven of whose observers are still being held captive in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists), but as a recent Carnegie Europe blog by Jan Techau points out, “the Kremlin does not seem to share the principles that the OSCE was designed to uphold.” Twenty-first century Russia, contrary to the red herring spread by its enablers and apologists, was included in Europe’s security architecture, says Techau (“Why European Security Works Better Without Russia,” 4/29/14). The “narrative of humiliation and justification that maintains that Russia has been ostracized, excluded, and conspired against” is “wrong on many levels.” The reason the OSCE is not working as designed is that “no matter what binding or nonbinding agreement Russia has entered into since the end of the Cold War, it has attempted to torpedo the deal from within,” and this applies also “to the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization, the other major multilateral forums Russia has joined in recent decades….The reason behind Russia’s behavior is its archaic understanding of what constitutes a sovereign nation….Moscow…adheres to the idea that a nation is fully sovereign only as long as it is strong enough to take care of its own security. This notion means that only a small handful of countries in the world can claim true independence….Russia…can never accept an architecture in which a country of lesser stature has an enforceable legal claim against–or even a formal veto power over–Russian objectives. That makes it amazingly unattractvie for almost anybody to enter any kind of legally binding, or even nonbinding, agreement with Russia.”
Jan Techau, unfortunately, has accurately appraised the behavior and standpoint of today’s Russia. Merkel and Obama have a tough job in that U.S. and German finance and business oligarchs seem to be lobbying hard for looking the other way. In another sense, though, it should be easy for the political leaders of Germany and the U.S. to see that they need to act based on a longer-term horizon than their economic elites seem able to imagine. Moreover, Obama and Merkel are aware that their “job creators” cannot “build it themselves” in that they need protection and support from government–and sometimes much more support than road maintenance. Sometimes governments in democratic regimes are compelled, based on a long-term strategic worldview, to defend their citizens against the rogue behavior of countries like Putin’s Russia. Doing so is not high-risk behavior, it is risk management and mitigation.
And meanwhile Obama might be well advised, since he is no longer running for office and only lives once, to reconsider some of his insupportable, petulant, and unworthy responses to the Snowden leaks. It is high time to acknowledge, which he has not yet done, that we have a surveillance state, as a German official said recently, “acting without any limits.”
My vote is that Kant was much less naive than the head of Siemens, for example, about the implications of Putinism for Europe’s future. Sure Kant lived in the 18th century–details, details. Lately there has been much commentary about the contrast between Putin’s Hobbesian vision of the world vs. the European Union’s supposedly naive Kantian cosmopolitanism. There is some truth in that contrast, but I would say it is unfair to Immanuel Kant. For example, in his essay, “On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice,” Kant is quite aware that “nowhere does human nature appear less lovable than in the relations of entire peoples to one another.” And his short treatise, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” opens with the worldly comment that “It may be left undecided whether this satirical inscription on a certain Dutch innkeeper’s signboard picturing a graveyard was to hold for human beings in general, or for heads of state in particular, who can never get enough of war, or only for philosophers, who dream that sweet dream.” And Kant recognized that “no treaty of peace shall be held to be such if it is made with a secret reservation of material for a future war.” He could hardly have anticipated more concisely the Russian attitude toward last week’s “agreement” between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and the EU.
Meanwhile Angela Merkel is having a very hard time keeping her business elite from bowing down to Putin (the head of Shell Oil–Dutch-owned–literally bowed before Putin last week, hat tip to Bill Browder Twitter feed) in their quest for business as usual. If the CEO of German conglomerate Siemens goes to pay a friendly visit Putin in Moscow, while German-trained Russian special forces pursue their soft invasion of eastern Ukraine (see Josh Rogin, “Germany Helped Prep Russia For War,” Daily Beast, 4/22/14) how is Chancellor Merkel supposed to conduct a foreign policy that serves the interests of all Germans, and by extension the EU as a whole? And who then looks more naive, Immanuel Kant or the masters of the German universe who are pretending that business continues as usual?
P.S. It is a tricky business, trying to muster the immense economic power of a group of countries accustomed to neo-Kantian “win-win” cosmopolitanism (under unanimous consent EU rules that are not necessarily helpful in crises) against a bad actor who decides to play by “Hobbesian” win-lose rules and redraw national borders. It behooves the leaders of Europe–Merkel and Cameron and Hollande–as well as Obama, to up their game, which would involve, at a minimum, preparing their constituents and their own oligarchs for some inconveniences.
Kimberly Marten, professor at Barnard College, pointed to a change in Putin’s way of referring to “Russians” on Tuesday (in a Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog post and in an interview with “Here and Now”) that she found ominous: Putin had been careful to say “Rossisskii,” which means persons of any ethnicity or nationality living inside the borders of the Russian Federation, but on Tuesday he switched to “Russkii,” meaning ethnic Russians only. I imagine this shift to Russian ethnic nationalism is likely to play well with his intended core audience, but it does make his propagandistic claims that his goal is combatting abusive Ukrainian “ultranationalists” even more ludicrous, in spite of the spectacle of Svoboda thuggishness at Ukrainian state TV. (The Onion’s commentary from inside Putin’s soul: “Thanks for being so cool about everything,” to the U.S., Europe, and pretty much the whole world!)
The least Western media can do is to report on Putin’s actions without retreating behind the journalistic “view from nowhere” as if that excused historical illiteracy. Of course Russia has longstanding historical ties with Ukraine, and Russia has national interests, and Sevastopol’s Russian naval base is an important warm-water port. But, as Daisy Sindelar writes in “Ukraine Unspun” (at rferl.org), “Crimea, which has been claimed by a number of empires during the past millennium, has never really been an inseparable part of anything. Russia wrested it back from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century [thus the Crimean Tatars are more “native” Crimeans than Putin’s St. Petersburg and Moscow cronies–and are being pushed off their land by Putin just as they were by Stalin], and the peninsula spent only 37 years as a part of the Soviet Union’s Russian Republic before being transferred to Ukraine [Putin is unlikely to rehabilitate Kruschkev].” So much for Putin’s assertion that “in people’s hearts and mind, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” Sindelar deconstructs several other specious and ahistorical claims made by Putin, such as “[in] Russia as a whole…not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.”
Speaking of deconstruction, Putin does have a sharp eye for the soft underbelly of Western and specifically American hypocrisy. He sometimes even speaks the truth, and should be heeded when he does. But Putin’s main goal, to create cognitive dissonance, resignation, and paralysis in European public opinion, can and should be resisted. If he points to hypocrisy and unfreedom in the “free world,” we Westerners can and should listen and become better citizens for it, but with respect to Ukraine the least we can do is offer some real material support, at the probable cost of some inconvenience, to promote the worthy cosmopolitan project begun in the aftermath of World War II with the Franco-German coal and steel pact. Merkel and Obama may have failed so far to induce Putin and Russia to move toward Western norms and normalcy, and Putin is using EU governance weaknesses to his advantage in the short term, but it is possible–and urgent–for Europeans to think and plan more strategically in the light of the caesura of 2014. We should not be drawn into a permanent zero-sum or negative-sum mindset, and we should not dwell in Putin’s dystopic mental world full-time, but it would be unwise to plan and act as if Putin has not strayed far from the international law he purports to uphold.
By the way, Putin will gain credibility on referendums when he accommodates the 1992 pro-independence Tatarstan referendum and then allows a free and fair vote, with international observers, in east Prussia, including Immanuel Kant’s home town of Konigsberg/Kaliningrad. Not to mention a positive response to today’s news of a request for an independence referendum in St. Petersburg!
P.S. If Obama’s “reset” with Russia was naive and misbegotten, he may have Lloyd Blankfein, among others, for company. Businessweek reports today that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are “being forced…to reexamine their bet on friendlier relations between Putin and the West.”
Update 3/22: OSCE observers head to Ukraine, 100 at first, maximum of 500; Russia had stonewalled on this for a week but dropped objections Friday (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is composed of 57 nations in Europe, Central Asia, and North America, and as with the EU unanimity is needed to move forward with anything). I think this makes Russian disruptions and destabilizations somewhat less likely leading up to national elections May 25. Once those elections happen, Russia may be much less able to claim with any plausibility that Ukraine is being hijacked by fascist brigands. In sum, a good sign and the first real signal of possible de-escalation, though the observers will not be allowed into Crimea at all.
It seems that traders in world markets have little concern that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be much of an impediment to anyone’s profitability, given that Ukraine is a “far-off country of which they know little,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain’s reaction to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. The bankers and hedge funds and bond traders do not see Putin coming for them. Right they may be, at least in the short and medium term, after which it will be somebody else’s problem, like global warming. The EU governance rules require unanimity, and sanctions are only as strong as whatever Cyprus and Bulgaria, let alone loyal-servant-of-the-City-of-London David Cameron, will approve.
President Obama and NATO can certainly protect their own sovereign space, but do they simply watch while Putin destabilizes and propagandizes Ukraine? The amoral logic of capitalism that makes sanctions hard to enact or enforce seems to be in Putin’s favor, but it could cut more than one way. How about dropping all sanctions that keep Iran from freely selling its natural gas? If western Europe and the U.S. are going to continue doing business with a guy like Vladimir Vladimirovich, why not do business with Rouhani? Let Iran and Russia knock themselves out competing and cutting energy prices. I may not have thought through all the possible consequences, I admit, but it seems worth considering, if only to get out of the mindset that the West is simply reacting rather than initiating.
The catchword of the accelerating crackdown on expression of anti-Putinist views in Crimea, as well as Russia, is “provocative,” as in “don’t ask provocative questions!” The civic space for freedom of speech, expression, and assembly is contracting as carpetbagging (or Russian-flag-bagging) Russians appear to be trying to provoke Ukrainians into a reaction that Putin can use to justify openly armed intervention in eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea. So far Putin has left himself an escape route from the burden of actually paying for Crimeans’ daily needs by the seemingly silly denial that there are any Russian troops in Crimea. That denial seems absurd if you have access to non-RT news sources, but many millions of Russians have put on their rhinoceros horns (see Eugene Ionesco) and choose to accept the Kremlin version of events, in which “provocations” by “fascists” and “ultranationalists” are causing a reluctant Vladimir Putin to accept his responsibility to protect brotherly Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in a fraternal Ukraine currently suffering under illegitimate rulers.
Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, asked sarcastically in a recent emergency Security Council session if Russia had taken upon itself the role of “rapid response arm of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.” She was certainly not an architect of the Iraq war, so she can perhaps speak without gross personal hypocrisy, but one legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (among other American adventures) is how easily Putin or Lavrov or Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, can level plausible charges of hypocritical self-serving provocation against Americans–regardless of the big differences between Russia’s intimidation in Crimea and secessionism in Kosovo or Scotland.
Putin and his advisers may well see the Euromaidan protesters as paid agents of the Western world who have provoked him into an unavoidable, reasonable, and in fact necessary response. He may be right if only in the sense that the Maidan movement expressed a yearning for a (perhaps idealized) western prosperity under normal rules of law that, if it took hold in Russia itself, would shake rattle and roll Putin’s world of autocratic Orthodoxy and kleptocracy. Provocative people and media in Russia–Navalny and lenta.ru, for example–are in for a bumpy ride in the short term; but I think Putin, by showing his brutish hand against Ukraine, has provoked consequences beyond his control and likely unpleasant for him and his cronies. My prediction depends partly on the resilience, imaginativeness, and determination of Muscovites and other Russians, and partly on the resolve of Angela Merkel, whose supposed remark that Putin was in “another world” (leaked by an anonymous Obama aide a few days ago after a Merkel-Obama phone call) should be interpreted in light of her more recent public accusation (a couple of days ago in a speech in Germany) that Putin is following “jungle law.” For Merkel, Putin’s sin is upsetting the hard-won European progress toward legal-rational-technical institutions as the royal road to prosperity and peace. Putin has publicly disrespected the U.S. government perspective on Ukraine, but his provocative insult to Merkel by ignoring her proposal of an OCSE contact group, including observers in Crimea, may do even more to gum up his plans.
P.S. The Ukrainians seem to have learned something from the hotheaded mistakes of former Georgian president Saakashvili, who took the provocative bait of Russia and counterattacked in 2008. Ukrainian nonviolent resistance has, I think, complicated Putin’s plans, at least to the extent that his adventurist disregard for international norms and laws has been laid bare. Putin’s use of special ops “Spetsnaz” soldiers is ominous, and Ukraine may have a hard time preventing their subversion, but many Ukrainians, as a recent Daily Beast story on “Russia’s Special Ops Invasion of Ukraine” notes, fought with Russian “Spetsnaz” commandos in Afghanistan, so their tactics are not a great surprise.
It hasn’t quite come to that yet. But would Edward Snowden–who is a civilian, not subject as far as I know to a military trial, really be convicted by an American jury today? I am not advising him to come back to the United States, but I suspect that few politicians or prosecutors, from President Obama on down, would feel confident attacking Snowden right now. Not so much because sympathy for what he did is necessarily so strong, but unease if not anger about what the NSA has done to privacy, twelve years after 2001, has become so widespread that jury nullification would be a very live possibility. I have little doubt that Snowden broke laws. I do not think he stood on solid ground when he asserted in his October 31 letter to Hans-Christian Stroebele, a German lawmaker, that “my government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges.” That strikes me as a bit much–or, in another sense, as too little, in that the stakes should probably be even higher than Snowden claimed. The NSA may well continue to evade oversight, but the agency has shown it has little sense of prudent self-restraint with the latest revelations this week. It sends exactly the wrong signal to an out-of-control child, or intellence agency as the case may be, to not put in the hard work and diligence needed to set limits in a firm, fair way. Are we the people and our representatives up to setting limits on our overfed, idiot savant, gargantuan yet immature national surveillance state?
- Snowden To Speak With Germany About US Spying (bloomberg.com)
- Obama ‘approved tapping Merkel’s phone 3 years ago’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Greenwald backs German calls for NSA whistleblower Snowden to testify before Bundestag inquiry (irishtimes.com)
- Germany: Prepared to speak with Snowden (hosted.ap.org)
- Germany and Brazil in UN spy draft (bbc.co.uk)
Congratulations, Senator! So many billions of pieces of metadata you thought were “lawful” and “effective” and “conducted under careful oversight”–could the NSA have forgotten to tell you about Angela Merkel’s unencrypted Nokia? And you want everyone to know you do not like being left out of the loop? The leader of a new Church committee you will probably not be, but if the NSA’s spell on you is broken a little, that could be a good thing for the country.
- Dianne Feinstein: ‘I am totally opposed’ to NSA surveillance of US allies (theguardian.com)
- Feinstein Statement on Intelligence Collection of Foreign Leaders (feinstein.senate.gov)
- Glenn Greenwald: “Dianne Feinstein is Outright Lying” about NSA Surveillance Abuses (xrepublic.tv)
- Sen. Feinstein: ‘Total Review’ Of NSA Activities Needed (npr.org)
- National security: learning the Feinstein lesson | Editorial (theguardian.com)
In a desperate effort to change the narrative and thus win the day, President Obama is reported to have denied today that the NSA is surveilling or will ever be surveilling the Amazonian vegetarian piranha.
Angela Merkel is said to be developing a state-of-the-art liverwurst to tempt the piranhas. Francois Hollande remarked ironically that if Americans possessed more acute theoretical faculties we would perceive that Obama had said nothing, nothing to exclude U.S. surveillance of vegan piranhas. Hollande denied rumors of a French plot even more insidious than Chancellor Merkel’s: to introduce the vegan/vegetarian piranhas to appellation controlled Roquefort.
- Angela Merkel demands answers from Obama as Germany says US may have tapped her phone (independent.co.uk)
- Merkel calls Obama to complain about surveillance (sfgate.com)
- Merkel concern at ‘US phone spying’ (bbc.co.uk)
- Purring monkey and vegetarian piranha among 400 new Amazon species (theguardian.com)
- Never-before-seen pictures of new animal species discovered in the Amazon (dailymail.co.uk)