America would gain nothing from cosying up to Putin’s declining Russia

It has been three years since Russia’s stunning annexation of Crimea. It is the worst kept secret in Washington that the new administration of Donald Trump would like to turn the page on the US-Russian hostility that followed, in a transactional effort to remake US foreign policy.

At the heart of Trump’s Jacksonian nationalism is his transactional view of the world, a state of mind that is confounding allies and enemies alike. Unsentimental in the extreme, the President is singularly unimpressed by alliances in both Europe and Asia (held in almost sacred awe by the discredited America foreign policy establishment) that he senses may be past their sell-by dates if they don’t deliver in terms of immediate American interests.

In the same vein, the Trump White House has not let a long history of US-Russian bad blood get in the way of his desire to pursue closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, if doing so—and despite Putin’s well-deserved reputation for thuggery—serves American goals. And oddly enough–for all that readers of this column know I am no friend of the current President–I have absolutely no problem with his more transactional approach to foreign policy, as it amounts to a breath of fresh air, rightly questioning intellectual sacred cows that ought really to have been thought through again following the debacle of the Iraq war.

The problem with President Trump’s outreach to Russia is not that he is attempting to work with a far from savoury (alright let’s admit it, Putin is my favourite Bond villain) partner to further American interests; it’s that he will receive almost nothing for his bold efforts. And getting a good deal– which is largely the basis of Trump’s popularity and narrative—is, after all, the point of the whole exercise.

But what does America get from such a shift in its foreign policy? ISIS is already on its last legs, with Mosul in Iraq—by far the largest city the caliphate controls—set to fall later this year. Its capital (Raqqa in Syria) will surely be next. The key strategic point remains what it has always been: in both Iraq and Syria disaffected Sunnis must be included in the governing process, or there will surely be another—and perhaps even more hideous—vampire-like rising of radical Sunni Islam, following on from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS. And absolutely none of this is affected in any material way by whether Trump and Putin reach an understanding or not.

Nor is there an obvious economic reward flowing on from a rapprochement with the Kremlin, as there would be say, if Trump and Xi Jinping (another strongman nationalist) reached a broad accord. Russia is an aging, corrupt gas station with nuclear weapons, with its economy wholly precariously tethered to the spot price of oil and natural gas. Russia’s economy is merely the size of Texas. The country is a great power in decline, not one on the rise. There is simply no economic pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Trump here, either.

As for Russia and the US more broadly sharing intelligence and in some sort of coordinated way working together to combat global terrorism, that will happen in any event, if it suits the eminently rational Putin’s interests, and will not happen if it does not. Reaching a Grand Bargain has nothing to do with what amounts to a rational second order decision the Kremlin will make, based on an evaluation of its own interests.

So, closer ties with Putin does not dramatically change the facts on the ground over ISIS in Syria, facilitate a new economic renaissance for the US (as such a deal with China or, better, India, would do), or cement a joint front in the global war against terror. In other words, at the end of Trump’s transactional approach to Russia, there’s nothing there. In hard-headed realist terms, there simply is no deal available that makes calling NATO into question, or abandoning with the embattled (but getting better) Ukrainian government of President Poroshenko, worth it.

For on its own self-interested terms, this dreamed-of alliance simply makes no sense, in terms of America’s basic interests. A declining Russia simply does not offer the US anything remotely strategically attractive enough to ignore Russian adventurism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. By all means, let’s move away from the gormless era when American neoconservatives and liberal hawks fought wars that had almost nothing to do with direct American interests. But any cursory glance at those interests means that this putative deal is merely intellectual fool’s gold.

Published in City AM London, February 27, 2017

Founding Fathers 1, populists 0: The US Constitution is taming Trump

“Through all the gloom I can see rays of ravishing light and glory.”
–John Adams to his wife Abigail, July 3, 1776, after Congress voted for Independence

“Good people don’t go into government.”
–Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s first month in office ended with a bizarre, rambling press conference that made incompetence into a type of performance art. Preternaturally gormless, blithely convinced that things have been going well—all evidence to the contrary–the largely oblivious president nevertheless allowed a few cracks to show. He reserved particular scorn for the media and the intelligence agencies, who have been leaking his peccadilloes like a sieve, especially regarding the administration’s all-too-warm ties to Vladimir Putin.

Here Trump–living up to the adage that if you throw enough darts at a wall you are bound to hit something–is onto something big. For his trials and tribulations of the past month, a car crash that has scared and riveted people around the world in equal measure, ironically prove the strength of the American Constitutional system, not its weakness.

It is important to remember that the United States has had one Republic (while the French have had five). The American Founders—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison—were, unlike their French revolutionary cousins (Robespierre, Marat, and Danton) brilliant administrators above all else.

They fashioned a system of shared powers and checks and balances not by accident but as a conscious way to halt potentially dictatorial and ignorant leaders from undoing the country. Serious students of history, the Founders knew that the few examples of representative government up to their time had all been destroyed from within, with chaos leading to tyranny. By dividing power, they consciously made getting things done at the federal level harder, precisely as a way to see off rule by the few.

And this brilliant system has withstood a Civil War, Red Scares, Japanese-American internment, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and Watergate. The lesson of the past month is that the Republic will endure the boisterous know-knothingism of Donald Trump as well.

For over January, the constitutional and bureaucratic obstacles that have left the new president a spluttering caricature have been evident to all. This is precisely what the Founders had in mind. I have found myself involuntarily blessing them over the past fraught days, as their genius has been more than a match for the latest threat to the American Constitutional order.

First, the Federal judiciary (a co-equal branch of government to the presidency) has so far declared the White House’s noxious travel ban to be illegal.

Second, the FBI alerted members of the press—for all its faults the key institution in Jefferson’s mind for preserving representative government—about the odd, clandestine acts of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in cosying up to the Russian government before the transfer of power. Flynn unceremoniously left his post after a mere 24 days. Congress, in its constitutionally-mandated oversight role, may soon begin hearings to clarify the murky relationship between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.

Third, the press caught the President misleading them about the size (and the man does have an obsession with the concept) of his electoral triumph. Saying his victory over the hapless Hillary Clinton was the largest since the days of Ronald Reagan, Trump was corrected by the press, who noted that Presidents Obama, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all triumphed by much larger margins.

Slightly embarrassed (but not nearly enough), Trump made it clear he did not have time to check these facts, which honestly all of my interns would have known cold. And that, in many ways, is precisely the point. For like it or not, facts matter. This should be especially true for the man who heads the most powerful country in the world. The press, the courts, and the intelligence agencies are doing their jobs—and more, fulfilling the Founders’ hopes for restraints on dangerously uneducated powerful men–in reminding the White House that reality is not optional.

The constraints of the real world have also played their part in moderating Trump’s excesses. Over the past month, he has rowed back from appearing to ditch the One China policy, left the sane and humane Defence Secretary James Mattis to decide about the efficacy of torture (Mattis is opposed), accepted the Iran deal (though promising to be tougher in oversight of it), reaffirmed America’s key links to its Japanese and NATO allies (though rightly demanding they pay their fair share for a change), and left sanctions in place over Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Crimea.

Frankly, while chaotically formulated, this is a clearly distinguishable realist foreign policy that I and much of the American populace can generally get behind. I do not kid myself (as some in the media do) that President Trump arrived at this end state out of some pre-planned, Machiavellian strategy. Rather the real world intruded on his fantasies, and able men like Mattis have steered him in the right direction.

In other words, thank God the American Founders win again.

Published in City AM London February 20, 2017

Blame France’s incompetent and corrupt elite for the rise of Marine Le Pen

“Apres moi, le deluge.” (After me comes the flood)

–Louis XV

Say what you will, Francois Fillon, the disgraced former frontrunner in the upcoming French presidential elections, is no Professor Moriarty. As the investigative journal Canard Enchaine reports, Fillon paid his wife Penelope over 800,000 euros for work as a political assistant it is unclear whether she preformed. Far from being a master criminal, it seems he gave two of his children legal jobs despite the highly relevant fact that they were not yet lawyers. France is ripe for another revolution to rectify such excesses.

This is the problem with the rise of populism in Europe. The demagogues—horribly wrong as they are in policy terms over peddling impossible dreams as solutions–have all the best lines. And they are entirely correct in that Europe’s lazily corrupt, highly incompetent elite have driven the people they represent into a ditch.

There is no doubting that Marine Le Pen, the charismatic, firebrand leader of the xenophobic Front National (FN) has a great story to tell about both French elite corruption and incompetence.

The corruption portion of the populist narrative is beyond dispute. Beyond Fillon, former President Jacques Chirac and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe were given suspended sentences for corruption. Former Finance Minister and current IMF chief Christine Lagarde was found guilty of negligence for approving a massive payout of taxpayer money to a controversial French businessman. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is presently under investigation for alleged illegal campaign funding. In reading this doleful list, sometimes I truly wonder if there is anyone left in power in France who has behaved honourably.

The other side of the coin, incompetence, is epitomised by hapless outgoing current President Francois Hollande, a leader so gormless that in November 2016 he had a personal approval rating of just 4%, a subterranean low unequalled in the history of the Fifth Republic. Bowing to electoral reality, in December 2016 Hollande surrendered, not even bothering to try to run for a re-election he stood absolutely no chance of winning.

The main reason for this was his pathetic failure to even begin to substantially reform the sclerotic French economy. During his tenure, France has lost a further 600,000 jobs. In 2016, France grew at an anaemic 1.1% of GDP, in line with its lacklustre 1.2% in 2015. Stunningly, as of January 2017, more than one in four workers under 25 is jobless. The world is simply passing the French economy by.

As a result of this dual headed monster of corruption and incompetence, Fillon has fallen in the polls, making maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron the new frontrunner to be President of France. The latest early February 2017 polls have Le Pen at 25%, Macron at 22%, and Fillon at 19% in the first round of voting. In a second round, Macron would win decisively over Le Pen with a 66-34% advantage. But while the competent Macron is now likely to win, such a victory should not be seen as a repudiation of Le Pen. Rather it is part of her long-term game plan.

For Macron is France’s last, best chance to save itself in its present form. However, if he cannot reform the heretofore unreformable French economy, France as we know it is on its last legs. Le Pen is set to take one third of the vote in the second round of this year’s presidential elections on May 7th, almost double her father’s total of 18% as the FN candidate in the second presidential round of voting in 2002. So the flood waters for the French elite are definitely rising.

All Le Pen needs are five more years of economic failure, and then she has all the chance in the world to win the presidency next time, especially as her narrative of elite incompetence and corruption hardens into certainty for the French electorate. Le Pen is merely betting on is things staying as they are, with the talented, youthful Macron (he is only 39) unable to drag his country into the twenty-first century. Given France’s recent past history, that is more than a reasonable bet to make.

And yet in Macron there is hope. A former Rothschild banker, he comes from the real world pro-business wing of the Socialist Party, serving as a marginally successful economy minister under Hollande, after the French president made his belated policy pivot back to economic reality. If anyone can reform France, Macron is the man.

However, Le Pen’s long-term bet on French elite incompetence and corruption has so far been borne out by the historical facts. It will take real French reform to stave off the terribly destructive prospect of French populism. For the main problem in French politics at present is that only Le Pen seems to have a real long-term political game plan.

Published in City AM London, February 13, 2017.