March 7, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads – Off the Rails

 Let’s just catalogue all the ways the world seems to be going off the rails:

  • In Italy, rightwing, Euroskeptic populists triumphed electorally, but left no clear path toward a new government, mixing more uncertainty into the European Union.
  • In China, Xi Jinping proved that the path from autocracy to dictatorship is but a step – abolishing presidential term limits via a compliant National People’s Congress.
  • Syrians in Ghouta bore the deadly brunt of their president's bombs as Bashar al-Assad continued to commit brutal and undeterred crimes against humanity — enabled, as so often, by Russia. This is what happens when no one enforces global rules.
  • World markets and governments recoiled as President Donald Trump cocked and loaded the opening shot of a trade war. His plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum opened another rift within the US and deepened the one that's been developing between the US and many of its once-close allies.
  • Russia brazenly chest-thumped its way through announcing supersonic, "invincible" nuclear weapons, which President Vladimir Putin boasted could evade American missile defense systems. Such bravado and lack of restraint follows warnings by the outgoing and incoming heads of US Cyber Command that Russia continues to interfere in our elections and, lacking presidential authorization to respond, there was little they could do to make him stop.
  • And we saw yet more American diplomats exiting the door. North Korea negotiator Joe Yun left a void at the top of Trump's Korea team and the US Ambassador to Mexico apparently gave up trying to salvage the increasingly strained relationship.

Washington, meanwhile, remained focused on castle intrigue. Another White House communications director is leaving, and the chief economic adviser resigned because of differences over trade policy. Rumors also persisted that the president would fire his chief of staff. Or his national security advisor. Or maybe both. And, of course, there was the latest round of disagreement between the president and his attorney general.

A world in this much turmoil needs strong, steady leadership. But these days, that is just as likely to come from the Great Hall of the People or even the Kremlin as it is from the White House.

It’s been quite a week. As always, thanks for coming along for the ride. And keep sending me your comments or thoughts.

John Major Calls for Commons Vote on Second Referendum

Dan Roberts / The Guardian

In a London speech, former British prime minister John Major criticized the government’s Brexit strategy and called for a free vote in parliament on whether to hold a second EU referendum. Major is the most senior Conservative to attack the 18-month withdrawal negotiations, insisting there must be “a decisive vote, in which parliament can accept or reject the final outcome; or send the negotiators back to seek improvements; or order a referendum.” Essentially, parliament has a duty to consider the “wellbeing of the people” as well as the “will of the people” from the first referendum. “I know of no precedent for any government enacting a policy that will make both our country and our people poorer,” Major said. “Once that is apparent, the government must change course.”

Xi Sets China on a Collision Course with History

Max Fisher / The New York Times

The Communist Party’s decision to end presidential term limits for Xi Jinping severely weakens one of China’s two pillars of rule-bound institutions, argues Fisher. The other pillar, collective leadership–rule by consensus rather than strongman­–has enabled China to uphold an anachronistic system of government for decades. But by shifting toward a personalist dictatorship, Xi is “doubling down on the idea that China is different and can refashion an authoritarianism for this age.” Fisher labels this personalization of power “a high-risk and partial solution to China’s needs,” adding that: “A cult of personality can do for a few years or perhaps decades, but not more.”

The Man Who Molded Chicago’s Merc

Jacob Bunge / The Wall Street Journal

The son of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939, Leo Melamed has dedicated the past five decades of his life to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Starting in the CME’s trading pits as a law student, Melamed eventually worked his way up to chairman of the board in 1969. In the ensuing years, propelled by the electronic trading platform Melamed evangelized in the late ‘80s, CME has grown to eclipse the world’s other financial exchanges in market capitalization. Recently, on the cusp of retirement, Melamed has set his eyes on developing Chinese and other Asian financial markets, as well as opening a new market linked to bitcoin.

Decades of Optimism About China’s Rise Have Been Discarded

The Economist

Sino-optimists have made two mistakes about China’s rise: Overestimating the subversive power of the internet and imagining that Western governments and organizations could explain to Chinese leaders where China’s self-interest lay. When the Communist Party announced it would scrap presidential term limits, it effectively scrapped hopes that a prosperous China would adopt Western democratic ideals. On the contrary, experts note China’s growing military strength, outposts in the South China Sea, and willingness to interfere in political debates across the world portend a closing window for challenging Chinese aggression. “In hindsight, a lot of clever predictions about China look like wishes in disguise.”

Putin Claims Russia is Developing Nuclear Arms Capable of Avoiding Missile Defenses

Anton Troianovski / The Washington Post

In a two-hour speech just outside the Kremlin walls, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia had successfully tested a nuclear-powered cruise missiles capable of flying in a low, unpredictable flight path that would render existing missile defense systems “useless.” Top US officials have issued warnings for months about the development of such weapons, and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said they were “not surprised.” Although directed at the West in advance of the US military’s planned release of a new missile defense policy, Putin’s speech was also timed before the looming March 18 presidential elections in which he looks certain to win a fourth term.

Trump Vows to Strike Back at European Leaders Who Warned of Retaliation for His Tariffs

Steve Mufson and Damian Paletta / The Washington Post

President Trump’s tariffs, aimed at China, missed and hit Canada–the largest exporter of aluminum and steel to the US–and a host of other close security allies. Trump added more fuel to the fire by vowing to strike back at European leaders who said they would retaliate for the tariffs. “The president is going to quickly find out that you can’t start a trade war with your allies and expect them to work with you on other issues,” said Jamie Fly, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. So far Beijing’s reaction has been more muted, possibly because China only accounts for 2 percent of all U.S. steel imports.

Trump Is so Obsessed with Winning That He Might Make America Lose

Ian Bremmer / The Washington Post

From President Trump’s perspective, the United States, and all its inhabitants, are in a zero-sum competition over everything, all the time. “The problem is that the triumphs that Trump craves–strength, safety, prosperity–cannot be achieved alone,” Ian Bremmer writes. “They require friends and allies, and they require the president see those people as partners, not competitors.” Bremmer states it’s clear Trump’s core beliefs come from the real estate world, where relationships often take the form of one-off transactions. But, in the end, it is not “a zero-sum world, and if Trump wants to make the best deals, he’ll need to learn a few words: respect, cooperation, and compromise,” Bremmer concludes.

Power Does Not Always Lie Where You Might Expect in Europe

The Economist

Across Europe, including Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, there are governments whose real power resides in the hands of back-seat driver politicians. The Economist describes their commonalities: They emerge in democracies where parties have shallow roots, often ex-communist countries, enabling strongmen to dominate political organizations and personnel decisions. As the article states, Italy, based on Silvio Berlusconi’s resurgence, may be next, and the problems caused by back-seat drivers are obvious. “Basic governance becomes harder when lines of authority are blurred and ministers serve at the whim of figures who do not occupy formal office.”

I Saw a Genocide in Slow Motion

Nicholas Kristof / The New York Times

“Sometimes Myanmar uses guns and machetes for ethnic cleansing,” Nicholas Kristof writes. “But it also kills more subtly and secretly by regularly denying medical care and blocking humanitarian aid to the Rohingya.” Although the Myanmar government has tried its best to bar foreigners and journalists from Rohingya areas, Kristof managed to gain access to five villages where he witnessed a “slow-motion genocide,” masses dying of malnutrition and disease rather than directly at the hands of the Tatmadaw. Kristof admits it is easy to ignore the suffering of the Rohingya during this time of global and domestic upheaval, but reminds the reader of Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must…become the center of the universe.”


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