Category Archives: Europe

Unwrapping Armageddon: The Erosion of Nuclear Arms Control

Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 6, 2018

 

The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) appears to be part of a broader strategy aimed at unwinding over 50 years of agreements to control and limit nuclear weapons, returning to an era characterized by the unbridled development weapons of mass destruction.

 

Terminating the INF treaty—which bans land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of between 300 and 3400 miles— is not, in and of itself, a fatal blow to the network of treaties and agreements dating back to the 1963 treaty that ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. But coupled with other actions—George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and the Obama administration’s program to upgrade the nuclear weapons infrastructure— the tapestry of agreements that has, at least in part, limited these terrifying creations, is looking increasingly frayed.

 

“Leaving the INF,” says Sergey Rogov of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, “could bring the whole structure of arms control crashing down.”

 

Lynn Rusten, the former senior director for arms control in the National Security Agency Council warns, “This is opening the door to an all-out arms race.”

 

Washington’s rationale for exiting the INF Treaty is that the Russians deployed the 9M729 cruise missile that the US claims violates the agreement, although Moscow denies it and the evidence has not been made public. Russia countercharges that the US ABM system—Aegis Ashore—deployed in Romania and planned for Poland could be used to launch similar medium range missiles.

 

If this were a disagreement over weapon capability, inspections would settle the matter. But the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—is less concerned with inspections than extracting the US from agreements that in any way restrain the use of American power, be it military or economic. Thus, Trump dumped the Iran nuclear agreement, not because Iran is building nuclear weapons or violating the agreement, but because the administration wants to use economic sanctions to pursue regime change in Teheran.

 

In some ways, the INF agreement is low hanging fruit. The 1987 treaty banned only land-based medium range missiles, not those launched by sea or air —where the Americans hold a strong edge—and it only covered the U.S. and Russia. Other nuclear-armed countries, particularly China, India, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have deployed a number of medium range nuclear-armed missiles. One of the arguments Bolton makes for exiting the INF is that it would allow the US to counter China’s medium range missiles.

 

But if the concern was controlling intermediate range missiles, the obvious path would be to expand the treaty to other nations and include air and sea launched weapons. Not that that would be easy. China has lots of intermediate range missiles, because most its potential antagonists, like Japan or US bases in Asia, are within the range of such missiles. The same goes for Pakistan, India, and Israel.

 

Intermediate range weapons—sometimes called “theater” missiles—do not threaten the US mainland the way that similar US missiles threaten China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow can be destroyed by long-range intercontinental missiles, but also by theater missiles launched from ships or aircraft. One of the reasons that Europeans are so opposed to withdrawing from the INF is that, in the advent of nuclear war, medium-range missiles on their soil will make them a target.

 

But supposed violations of the treaty is not why Bolton and the people around him oppose the agreement. Bolton called for withdrawing from the INF Treaty three years before the Obama administration charged the Russians with cheating. Indeed, Bolton has opposed every effort to constrain nuclear weapons and has already announced that the Trump administration will not extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) when it expires in 2021.

 

START caps the number of US and Russian deployed nuclear weapons at 1550, no small number.

 

The Bush administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty in 2002 was the first major blow to the treaty framework. Anti-ballistic missiles are inherently destabilizing, because the easiest way to defeat such systems is to overwhelm them by expanding the number of launchers and warheads. Bolton—a longtime foe of the ABM agreement—recently bragged that dumping the treaty had no effect on arms control.

 

But the treaty’s demise has shelved START talks, and it was the ABM’s deployment in Eastern Europe—along with NATO’s expansion up to the Russian borders—that led to Moscow deploying the cruise missile now in dispute.

 

While Bolton and Trump are more aggressive about terminating agreements, it was the Obama administration’s decision to spend $1.6 trillion to upgrade and modernize US nuclear weapons that now endangers one of the central pillars of the nuclear treaty framework, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

 

That agreement ended the testing of nuclear weapons, slowing the development of new weapons, particularly miniaturization and warheads with minimal yields. The former would allow more warheads on each missile, the latter could increase the possibility of using nuclear weapons without setting off a full-scale nuclear exchange.

 

Nukes are tricky to design, so you don’t want to deploy one without testing it. The Americans have bypassed some of the obstacles created by the CTBT by using computers like the National Ignition Facility. The B-61 Mod 11 warhead, soon-to-be-deployed in Europe, was originally a city killer, but labs at Livermore, CA and Los Alamos and Sandia, NM turned it into a bunker buster, capable of taking out command and control centers buried deep in the ground.

 

Nevertheless, the military and the nuclear establishment—ranging from companies such as Lockheed Martin and Honeywell International to university research centers—have long felt hindered by the CTBT. Add the Trump administration’s hostility to anything that constrains US power and the CTBT may be next on the list.

 

Restarting nuclear testing will end any controls on weapons of mass destruction. And since Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear-armed powers to eventually disarm their weapons of mass destruction, that agreement may go as well. In a very short time countries like South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia will join the nuclear club, with South Africa and Brazil in the wings. The latter two countries researched producing nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and South Africa actually tested one.

 

The demise of the INF agreement will edge the world closer to nuclear war. Since medium range missiles shorten the warning time for a nuclear attack from 30 minutes to 10 minutes or less, countries will keep their weapons on a hair trigger. “Use them or lose them” is the philosophy that impels the tactics of nuclear war.

 

In the past year, Russia and NATO held very large military exercises on one another’s borders. Russian, US and Chinese fighter planes routinely play games of chicken. What happens when one of those “games” goes wrong?

The US and the Soviet Union came within minutes of an accidental war on at least two occasions, and, with so many actors and so many weapons, it will be only a matter of time before some country interprets a radar image incorrectly and goes to DEFCON 1—imminent nuclear war.

 

The INF Treaty came about because of strong opposition and huge demonstrations in Europe and the United States. That kind of pressure, coupled with a pledge by countries not to deploy such weapons, will be required again, lest the entire tapestry of agreements that kept the horror of nuclear war at bay vanish.

 

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The Syrian Chess Board

Syria’s Chess Board

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 10, 2018

 

 

The Syrian civil war has always been devilishly complex, with multiple actors following different scripts, but in the past few months it appeared to be winding down. The Damascus government now controls 60 percent of the country and the major population centers, the Islamic State has been routed, and the rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are largely cornered in Idlib Province in the country’s northwest. But suddenly the Americans moved the goal posts—maybe—the Russians have fallen out with the Israelis, the Iranians are digging in their heels, and the Turks are trying to multi-task with a home front in disarray.

 

So the devil is still very much at work in a war that has lasted more than seven years, claimed up to 500,000 lives, displaced millions of people, destabilized an already fragile Middle East, and is far from over.

 

There are at least three theaters in the Syrian war, each with its own complexities: Idilb in the north, the territory east of the Euphrates River, and the region that abuts the southern section of the Golan Heights. Just sorting out the antagonists is daunting. Turks, Iranians, Americans and Kurds are the key actors in the east. Russians, Turks, Kurds and Assad are in a temporary standoff in the north. And Iran, Assad and Israel are in a faceoff near Golan, a conflict that has suddenly drawn in Moscow.

 

Assad’s goals are straightforward: reunite the country under the rule of Damascus and begin re-building Syria’s shattered cities. The major roadblock to this is Idlib, the last large concentration of anti-Assad groups, Jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, and a modest Turkish occupation force representing Operation Olive Branch. The province, which borders Turkey in the north, is mountainous and re-taking it promises to be difficult.

 

For the time being there is a stand down. The Russians cut a deal with Turkey to demilitarize the area around Idlib city, neutralize the jihadist groups, and re-open major roads. The agreement holds off a joint Assad-Russian assault on Idlib, which would have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and likely have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties.

 

But the agreement is temporary—about a month—because Russia is impatient to end the fighting and begin the reconstruction. However, it is hard to see how the Turks are going to get a handle on the bewildering number of groups packed into the province, some of which they have actively aided for years. Ankara could bring in more soldiers, but Turkey already has troops east of the Euphrates and is teetering on the edge of a major economic crisis. Pouring more wealth into what has become a quagmire may not sit well with the Turkish public, which has seen inflation eat up their paychecks and pensions, and the Turkish Lira fall nearly 40 percent in value in the past year. Local elections will be held in 2019, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party ‘s power is built on improving the economy.

 

In Syria’s east, Turkish troops—part of Operation Euphrates Shield—are pushing up against the Americans and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State (IS). Erdogan is far more worried about the Syrian Kurds and the effect they might have on Turkey’s Kurdish population, than he is about the IS.

 

Ankara’s ally in this case is Iran, which is not overly concerned about the Kurds, but quite concerned about the 2,200 Americans. “We need to resolve the difficulty east of the Euphrates and force America out,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in early September.

 

That latter goal just got more complex. The U.S. Special Forces were originally charged with aiding the Kurdish and Arab allies drive out the IS. President Donald Trump told a meeting in March, “we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon.” But that policy appears to have changed. National Security Advisor John Bolton now says U.S. troops will remain in Syria until Iran leaves. Since there is little chance of that happening, the U.S. commitment suddenly sounds open-ended. Bolton’s comment has stirred up some opposition in the U.S. Congress to “mission creep,” although Trump has yet to directly address the situation.

 

The Kurds are caught in the middle. The U.S. has made no commitment to defend them from Turkey, and the Assad regime is pressing to bring the region under Damascus’ control. However, the Syrian government has made overtures to the Kurds for talks about more regional autonomy, and one suspects the Kurds will try to cut a deal to protect them from Ankara. The Russians have been pushing for Assad-Kurd détente.

 

Turkey may want to stay in eastern Syria, but it is hard to see how Ankara will be able to do that, especially if the Turks are stretched between Idlib and Euphrates Shield in the east. The simple fact is that Erdogan misjudged the resiliency of the Assad regime and over reached when he thought shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber in 2015 would bring NATO to his rescue and intimidate Moscow. Instead, the Russians now control the skies over Idlib, and Turkey is estranged from NATO.

 

The Russians have been careful in Syria. Their main concerns are keeping their naval base at Latakia, beating up on al-Qaeda and the IS, and supporting their long-time ally Syria. Instead of responding directly to Erdogan’s 2015 provocation, Moscow brought in their dangerous S-400 anti-aircraft system, a wing of advanced fighter aircraft, and beefed up their naval presence with its advanced radar systems. The message was clear: don’t try that again.

 

But the Russians held off the attack on Idlib, and have been trying to keep the Israelis and Iranians from tangling with one another in the region around the Golan Heights. Moscow proposed keeping Iran and its allies at least 60 miles from the Israeli border, but Israel—and now the U.S.—is demanding Iran fully withdraw from Syria.

 

The Assad regime wants Teheran to stay, but also to avoid any major shootout between Iran and Israel that would catch Damascus in the middle. In spite of hundreds of Israeli air attacks into Syria, there has been no counter attacks by the Syrians or the Iranians, suggesting that Assad has ruled out any violent reaction.

 

That all came to end Sept 17, when Israeli aircraft apparently used a Russian Ilyushin-M20 electronic reconnaissance plane to mask an attack on Damascus. Syrian anti-aircraft responded and ending up shooting down the Russian plane and killing all aboard. Russia blamed the Israelis and a few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was sending its S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, along with a series of upgrades in Damascus’ radar network. Syria currently uses the S-200 system that goes back to the ‘60s.

 

The upgrade will not really threaten Israeli aircraft—the S-300 is dated and the Israelis likely have the electronics to overcome it—but suddenly the skies over Syria are no longer uncontested, and, if Tel Aviv decides to go after the Syrian radar grid, the Russians have their S-400 in the wings. Not checkmate, but check.

 

How all of this shakes down is hardly clear, but there are glimmers of solution out there. Turkey will have to eventually withdraw from Syria, but will probably get some concessions over how much autonomy Syria’s Kurds will end up with. The Kurds can cut a deal with Assad because the regime needs peace. The Iranians want to keep their influence in Syria and a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but don’t want a serious dustup with Israel.

 

An upcoming Istanbul summit on Syria of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany will talk about a political solution to the civil war and post-war reconstruction.

 

Israel will eventually have to come to terms with Iran as a major player in the Middle East and recognize that the great “united front” against Teheran of Washington, Tel Aviv and the Gulf monarchies is mostly illusion. The Saudis are in serious economic trouble, the Gulf Cooperation Council is divided, and it is Israel and the U.S. are increasingly isolated over in hostility to Teheran.

 

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Parsing the UK’s Anti-Semitism Debate

Britain: The Anti-Semitism debate

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 17, 2018

 

 

Does the British Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have an “anti-Semitism problem,” or has the Party’s left wing been targeted by the Israeli government for its support of the growing boycott and divestment movement that challenges Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land? A group of Israeli lawyers and social activists would like to know the answer to that question and have filed a Freedom of Information action in an effort to find out.

 

Spearheaded by Israeli human rights activist Eitay Mack, the request targets Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “verify that these play no part in the de-legitimization waged in recent years on the UK Labour Party and Mr. Corbyn.”

 

The Labour leader has been called an “anti-Semite and a racist” by one of the Party’s members of Parliament, and in a recent tweet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Corbyn of honoring Palestinians who took part in the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

 

Corbyn has long been a leader in the fight against racism and played a key role in helping to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa. He has also made it no secret that he makes common cause with the Palestinians and supports the Boycott and Divestment Sanctions (BDS) aimed at forcing Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.

 

In 2014, the Labour Party went through a sea change politically, moving away from the centrist programs of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and embracing left social democratic positions that Labour had not advocated for more than two decades. Corbyn resisted the endless austerity and privatization program of the Conservatives—many of which Labour had gone along with—and called for a robust program of re-nationalizing transport and energy, pumping money into health and education, and raising taxes on the wealthy.

 

The platform re-energized Labour’s grassroots, and hundreds of thousands of young people joined up. At 600,000 members, the UK Labour Party is now the largest party on the European continent. In the 2015 election, Labour picked up 33 seats in the Parliament and turned the Tories into a minority government.

 

Almost as soon as Corbyn took over the Party, the attacks that he was anti-Semitic—or at least tolerated anti-Semitism—started up. He was accused of comparing Israel to the Nazis. He was charged with honoring the Black September Palestinian group, whose 1972 attack in Munich resulted in the death of 11 Israeli athletes. He was denounced for backing a London street mural that had clear anti-Semitic images.

 

Finally, the three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK jointly declared that there was a “crisis of anti-Semitism” in the British Labour Party and that Corbyn was “an existential threat to Jewish life in the UK.”

 

But once one begins to unpack the charges it is hard to find much evidence for a “crisis.” Polls show the Labour Party is considerably less anti-Semitic than the Conservative Party, and it appears that anti-Semitism has declined since Corbyn took over. A number of the things Corbyn is accused of have been either distorted or fabricated.

 

Corbyn did not compare Israel to the Nazis. It was Holocaust survivor Hajo Meyer who did so in a 2010 panel discussion that the Labour Party leader took part. Meyer was upset with the 2009 Israeli bombing of Gaza—Operation Drop Lead—that killed 1391 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. He was referring to the fact that Gaza’s residents could not leave the strip and compared it to Jews unable to flee the Warsaw Ghetto.

 

Corbyn did not place a wreath to honor the Black September group. The event was to commemorate a 1985 attack on the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunisia by Israeli warplanes that killed 47 people and wounded 65 more. The attack was officially condemned by the UN Security Council with the assent of the U.S. The Black September members killed in Munich are buried in Libya, not Tunesia, although one of the group’s leaders, Salah Khalaf, is interned near where the memorial took place.

 

On the basis of free speech, the Labour leader initially did defend a mural with anti-Semitic elements. But when he looked at the painting closely, he apologized and said that free speech should never be used to mask anti-Semitism.

 

Lastly, Corbyn’s wing of the Labour Party is accused of resisting adopting an 11-point definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016. Corbyn did resist parts of the definition because many Labour activists fear that the list conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Even the architect of the document, Kenneth Stern, said it was meant to be a “working definition,” not a way to curb academic research and free speech. “Yet that is how it has come to be used.”

 

There is evidence that the Netanyahu government is trying to do exactly that by “de-legitimizing” Israel the growing boycott movement constitutes anti-Semitism, thus equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

 

A study by historian David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck College, found that the overwhelming majority of charges against Labour Party members concerned statements about Israel, not Jews.

 

Stephen Oryszcuk, foreign affairs editor of the leading Jewish newspaper, Jewish News, said that criticizing Israel “was not anti-Semitism,” and that the charges against Corbyn were “repulsive,” adding “This is a dedicated anti-racist we are trashing.”

 

As the two-state solution disintegrates under the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements—one recent plan calls for reaching a goal of one million settlers by the end of this year—and the controversial move to favor Jewish Israelis over other citizens, Israel may indeed be more vulnerable to a boycott movement. It is hardly surprising then that the Netanyahu government would try to nip the BDS in the bud.

 

Israeli lawyer Mack is looking for evidence that the campaign against Corbyn is encouraged and supported by the Foreign Affairs and Strategic ministries and is suspicious that a “crisis” exists in the Labour Party. “Israel is strengthening its relationships in Eastern Europe, with countries like Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, where they have problems with anti-Semitism. On the other hand you see the Israeli government making their political struggle with Jeremy Corbyn a main issue.”

 

That suspicion is supported by a 2017 sting operation by Al Jezeera that uncovered a direct liaison between diplomat Shai Masot of London’s Israeli embassy and organizations like Labour Friends of Israel that are leading critics of Corbyn. Masot works for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. And more than encouragement was exchanged. According to Al Jezeera, up to 1 million pounds ($1.3 million) were made available to fuel the campaign.

 

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a cable from Israel’s London embassy complaining that Strategic Affairs was breaking British law by encouraging political activities by Jewish charity groups.

 

In addition to the Jewish establishment newspapers, virtually every tabloid in the British Isles has joined the hue and cry. The publication ColdType counted more than 500 articles on the subject from July to August of this year. Nominally liberal publications like the Guardian have led the campaign. Most newspapers in the UK are more conservative than their continental—or American—counterparts, and, in the Guardian’s case, the publication is carrying water for the Labour Party’s rightwing.

 

In short, Corbyn is up against a powerful alliance of the mainstream media, the Conservative Party, and “Blairites” in the Labour Party, with Israel in the wings. And Corbyn’s response to apologize—what for is not exactly clear—and to drum dissidents out of the Party has not quelled the fires, but added fuel to them. Labour finally adopted the 11 definitions of anti-Semitism.

 

What about the effect of all this is on the electorate?

 

According to You/Gov, many of the stories that “obsess the Westminster media” don’t resonate much with the wider public. In spite of non-stop and widespread coverage, only 6 percent of the public say they are following it closely, 20 percent fairly closely and 54 percent are either not following it or are unaware the story exists. The poll concludes that while the “affair may entrench existing negative views of Corbyn among those who already held them, it seem unlikely to do much to reduce his support.”

 

Labour leads in the polls, but its margin is thin, drawing between 38 and 40 percent support to the Conservatives 37 to 38 percent. The Liberal Democrats are polling around 10 percent, and the racist United Kingdom Independence Party 5 percent.

 

However, British polling has been notoriously wrong-headed in the past. Polls predicted Brexit would fail. It passed. The polls predicted the Conservatives would trounce Labour in the 2017 elections. The outcome was vise-a-versa.

 

Labour did well in this year’s local council elections, although the media made it seem like a failure by puffing up the numbers the Party was projected to win. Labour picked up 79council seats while the Conservatives lost 35. The Liberal Democrats secured 77 seats, but that was largely a rebound from the disastrous showing in 2014 local elections that saw the Party lose 300 seats.

 

According to a BBC analysis, if the local election results were replicated in a general election Labour would be the majority party in the Parliament with 283 seats to the Tories 280. While the Conservatives were down 3 percent of the vote over the 2017 local elections, Labour was up 8 percentage points.

 

“People thought the general election was a fluke,” said John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, “we’ve demonstrated it wasn’t. We’ve consolidated that and we’ve moved it forward in terms of percentage share of the vote.”

 

Polls do show that anti-Semitic charges may have had an impact on the Jewish community, but those polls require perspective: the Jewish community in Britain tends to be conservative, and many were opposed to Labour in general. In 2017, some 63 percent of British Jews voted Conservative, while 26 percent voted Labour.

 

Which doesn’t mean the controversy may not have an effect, especially if rightwing Labour supporters bolt and create a new party. That would drain some of Labour’s support and divide the vote in the next general election. Such a split would probably keep the Tories in power. There are some in Labour’s camp who would rather lose an election than have Corbyn and the left wing of the Party in power.

 

And there is a danger that worries Mack: “Israel is claiming that Corbyn and the Labour Party are putting British Jews at risk. But the bottom line is that the Netanyahu government itself is actually enlarging the risk for the Jewish people around the world, because they are not dealing with real problems, just the artificial problems. They are not concerned with real anti-Semitism, they only want to fulfill their political agenda of taking the issue of the Palestinian people off the world stage.”

 

And there are growing numbers of “real anti-Semites” in Europe and the U.S. who may not be a threat to Netanyahu, but most certainly are to Jews living outside of Israel.

 

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NATO: Time to Re-Examine an Alliance

NATO: The Unexamined Alliance

Dispatches From The Edge

July 24, 2018

 

 

The outcome of the July11-12 NATO meeting in Brussels got lost amid the media’s obsession with President Donald Trump’s bombast, but the “Summit Declaration” makes for sober reading. The media reported that the 28-page document “upgraded military readiness,” and was “harshly critical of Russia,” but there was not much detail beyond that.

But details matter, because that is where the Devil hides.

 

One such detail is NATO’s “Readiness Initiative” that will beef up naval, air and ground forces in “the eastern portion of the Alliance.” NATO is moving to base troops in Latvia, Estonia Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Poland. Since Georgia and Ukraine have been invited to join the Alliance, some of those forces could end up deployed on Moscow’s western and southern borders.

 

And that should give us pause.

 

A recent European Leadership’s Network’s (ELN) study titled “Envisioning a Russia-NATO Conflict” concludes, “The current Russia-NATO deterrence relationship is unstable and dangerously so.” The ELN is an independent think tank of military, diplomatic and political leaders that fosters “collaborative” solutions to defense and security issues.

 

High on the study’s list of dangers is “inadvertent conflict,” which ELN concludes “may be the most likely scenario for a breakout” of hostilities. “The close proximity of Russian and NATO forces” is a major concern, argues the study, “but also the fact that Russia and NATO have been adapting their military postures towards early reaction, thus making rapid escalation more likely to happen.”

 

With armed forces nose-to-nose, “a passage from crisis to conflict might be sparked by the actions of regional commanders or military commanders at local levels or come as a consequence of an unexpected incident or accident.” According to the European Leadership Council, there have been more than 60 such incidents in the last year.

 

The NATO document is, indeed, hard on Russia, which it blasts for the “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea,” its “provocative military activities, including near NATO borders,” and its “significant investments in the modernization of its strategic [nuclear] forces.”

 

Unpacking all that requires a little history, not the media’s strong suit.

 

The story goes back more than three decades to the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventual re-unification of Germany. At the time, the Soviet Union had some 380,000 troops in what was then the German Democratic Republic. Those forces were there as part of the treaty ending World War II, and the Soviets were concerned that removing them could end up threatening the USSR’s borders. The Russians have been invaded—at terrible cost—three times in a little more than a century.

 

So West German Chancellor Helmet Kohl, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev cut a deal. The Soviets agreed to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe as long as NATO did not fill the vacuum, or recruit members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. Baker promised Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch east.”

 

The agreement was never written down, but it was followed in practice. NATO stayed west of the Oder and Neisse rivers, and Soviet troops returned to Russia. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991.

 

But President Bill Clinton blew that all up in 1999 when the U.S. and NATO intervened in the civil war between Serbs and Albanians over the Serbian province of Kosovo. Behind the new American doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” NATO opened a massive 11-week bombing campaign against Serbia.

 

From Moscow’s point of view the war was unnecessary. The Serbs were willing to withdraw their troops and restore Kosovo’s autonomous status. But NATO demanded a large occupation force that would be immune from Serbian law, something the nationalist-minded Serbs would never agree to. It was virtually the same provocative language the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had presented to the Serbs in 1914, language that set off World War I.

 

In the end, NATO lopped off part of Serbia to create Kosovo and re-drew the post World War II map of Europe, exactly what the Alliance charges that Russia has done with its seizure of the Crimea.

 

But NATO did not stop there. In 1999 the Alliance recruited former Warsaw Pact members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, adding Bulgaria and Romania four years later. By the end of 2004, Moscow was confronted with NATO in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to the north, Poland to the west, and Bulgaria and Turkey to the south. Since then, the Alliance has added Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro. It has invited Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply as well.

 

When the NATO document chastises Russia for “provocative” military activities near the NATO border, it is referring to maneuvers within its own border or one of its few allies, Belarus.

 

As author and foreign policy analyst Anatol Lieven points out, “Even a child” can look at a 1988 map of Europe and see “which side has advanced in which direction.”

 

NATO also accuses Russia of “continuing a military buildup in Crimea,” without a hint that those actions might be in response to what the Alliance document calls its “substantial increase in NATO’s presence and maritime activity in the Black Sea.” Russia’s largest naval port on the Black Sea is Sevastopol in the Crimea.

 

One does not expect even-handedness in such a document, but there are disconnects in this one that are worrisome.

 

Yes, the Russians are modernizing their nuclear forces, but the Obama administration was first out of that gate in 2009 with its $1.5 trillion program to upgrade the U.S.’s nuclear weapons systems. Both programs are a bad idea.

 

Some of the document’s language about Russia is aimed at loosening purse strings at home. NATO members agreed to cough up more money, but that decision preceded Trump’s Brussels tantrum on spending.

 

There is some wishful thinking on Afghanistan—“Our Resolute Support Mission is achieving success”—when in fact things have seldom been worse. There are vague references to the Middle East and North Africa, nothing specific, but a reminder that NATO is no longer confining its mission to what it was supposedly set up to do: Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.

 

The Americans are still in—one should take Trump’s threat of withdrawal with a boulder size piece of salt—there is no serious evidence the Russians ever planned to come in, and the Germans have been up since they joined NATO in 1955. Indeed, it was the addition of Germany that sparked the formation of the Warsaw Pact.

 

While Moscow is depicted as an aggressive adversary, NATO surrounds Russia on three sides, has deployed anti-missile systems in Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the Black Sea, and has a 12 to 1 advantage in military spending. With opposing forces now toe-to-toe, it would not take much to set off a chain reaction that could end in a nuclear exchange.

 

Yet instead of inviting a dialogue, the document boasts that the Alliance has “suspended all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia.”

 

The solution seems obvious. First, a return to the 1998 military deployment. While it is unlikely that former members of the Warsaw Pact would drop their NATO membership, a withdrawal of non-national troops from NATO members that border Russia would cool things off. Second, the removal of anti-missile systems that should never have been deployed in the first place. In turn, Russia could remove the middle range Iskander missiles NATO is complaining about and agree to talks aimed at reducing nuclear stockpiles.

 

But long range, it is finally time to re-think alliances. NATO was a child of the Cold War, when the West believed that the Soviets were a threat. But Russia today is not the Soviet Union, and there is no way Moscow would be stupid enough to attack a superior military force. It is time NATO went the way of the Warsaw Pact and recognize that the old ways of thinking are not only outdated but also dangerous.

 

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Trump and the Big, Bad Bugs

Trump & The Big Bad Bugs

Dispatches From The Edge

July 12, 2018

 

 

When people contemplate potential disasters ignited by the Trump administration’s foreign policy, places like the South China Sea, Central Asia, or the Korean Peninsula come first to mind. Certainly a dustup with Beijing, Teheran or Pyongyang is a scary thing to contemplate. But the thing that should also keep people up at night is Washington’s approach to international health organizations and the President’s stubborn refusal to address climate change.

 

Bad bugs are coming, and they are stronger and nastier than they have ever been. A few—like malaria and yellow fever—are ancient nemeses, but they’re increasingly immune to standard drugs and widening their reach behind a warming climate. Others—like Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika—are new, exotic and fearsome. And antibiotic resistant bacteria threaten to turn the clock back to pre-penicillin days, when a cut could be a death sentence.

 

Trump’s disdain for international agencies and treaties, plus cuts in public health programs, and a relaxation of regulations on the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry could create a worldwide medical catastrophe.

 

The President recently asked Congress to cut over $15 billion from health care, especially in the area of overseas response. On the very day that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an emergency over the latest Ebola outbreak, National Security Advisor John Bolton eliminated the National Security Agency’s program for epidemic prevention.

 

As Laurie Garrett—winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her writings on health care—notes, Bolton’s move “leaves the United States with no clear line of authority for responding to any outbreak of disease, whether naturally arising or as an act of bioterrorism,” adding “the U.S. government is increasingly withdrawing from global health efforts.”

 

The cost of that retreat may be dear.

 

The 2014-16 Ebola epidemic killed 11,300 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and infected health workers brought it back to Europe and the U.S.. While the disease was eventually corralled, it continues to flare up.

 

WHO found that the key to stopping Ebola’s spread is an immediate response that combines vaccination with isolation and hospitalization, a strategy that stopped a 2018 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in its tracks. But the Trump budget cuts all Ebola spending and reduces emergency funds for the State Department. A post-epidemic analysis found that an extra 300 hospital beds would have stopped the disease’s spread in 2014.

 

Diseases like Ebola get media attention, in part because Ebola kills more than 80 percent of its victims in a particularly grotesque manner: death by massive hemorrhaging.

 

But the more familiar diseases like malaria do the most damage. The malaria plasmodium infects 216 million people a year and kills 450,000, many of them children. And after decades of retreat, the disease is roaring back with varieties that are increasingly hard to treat. One by one, the barriers that once kept the disease at bay have fallen. Having overcome chloroquine, and then fansidar, now malaria has begun to breach the latest cure, artenisinin.

 

Public health experts predict that if the drug-resistant malaria strain ever reaches Africa, its impact will be catastrophic.

 

Yellow fever, once a major killer but largely tamed by mosquito control and vaccinations, is also making a comeback. Dengue, or “break-bone fever, which infects 400 million worldwide and kills over 25,000 people a year, has spread from nine countries in 1970 to over 100 today.

 

The fact that diseases overcome defenses is nothing new. Natural selection will generally find a way to outflank whatever chemicals humans come up with to defend themselves. Penicillin was discovered in 1939, and by 1941 doctor discovered Staphylococcus bacteria that were immune to the drug.

 

But bad policies and bad pathogens go hand in hand. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords will certainly accelerate climate change in a way that encourages the spread of disease. Earlier Springs and later Falls mean longer life spans for disease vectors like ticks and mosquitoes, which translates into greater infection rates. Researchers in Scandinavia and Massachusetts suspect that an increase in Lyme’s disease is due to climate change, and malaria is moving up the Andes as the higher altitudes warm.

 

Other diseases, like chagis—which kills 50,000 people a year—is already moving north as its vector, the assassin bug, migrates out of its base in Latin America. Diseases like West Nile is now part of the standard disease loads of Europe and the U.S.

 

Again, pathogen mobility is hardly new. Malaria, yellow fever, measles and small pox were all introduced to the New World by travelers, conquerors and African slaves. But disease is even less a local phenomenon today than it was in the 15th century. As Dr. Don Francis, who played a key role in identifying the HIV virus and was on the first medical team to confront Ebola, points out how disease spreads: “Just sit in an airport and watch all the costumes walk by.”

 

Trump is famously resistant to science. He doesn’t yet have a White House science advisor and is relying, instead, on Michael Kratsios, a 31-year old political science major who studied Hellenic Greece. Kratsios was the former chief of staff of California billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who advocates rolling back Food and Drug Administration regulations.

 

Those regulations cover the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. Chickens, cattle and pigs account for 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. The animals are not ill, just packed into pens and cages that would sicken them if they were not juiced with Bambermycin, Salinomycin or Bacitracin. Antibiotics also increase the animals’ weight.

 

But animals jammed into rarely cleaned cages and pens are the perfect Petri dish for generating drug resistant germs. According to the Environmental Working Group, nearly 80 percent of U.S. supermarket meat is infected with antibiotic resistant germs. Studies of meats in the U.S. show that up to 70 percent are laced with germs immune to antibiotics.

When the European Union banned non-therapeutic antibiotics on animals, drug resistant germ levels declined dramatically.

 

Eventually those pathogens move from animal pens to hospitals and gyms and airports. What you do in an Iowa pig farm does not stay in Iowa.

 

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 23,000 Americans die each year from drug resistant germs, and a British study predicted that, unless something is done about the crisis, antibiotic resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. The WHO says “superbugs” pose one of the most serous threats that humanity faces, and the medical magazine Lancet called drug resistant pathogens “The biggest global health threat in the 21st Century.”.

 

The White House’s hostility to the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act could also have major consequences, not only for Americans, but the world. In 1918, a mild Spanish flu mutated—probably in Kansas—into a fearsome virus that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

 

The 1918-19 pandemic almost certainly started in the digestive tracts of Chinese pigs, then passed to birds, and from birds to people. Those Chinese pigs are still out there, and lethal varieties of bird flu are currently circulating in China and Southeast Asia. So far, most can only be passed by direct contact with infected animals, but sooner or later there will be a mutation that will make a virus far more communicable. A deadly worldwide pandemic is a “when,” not an “if.”

 

And when that pandemic hits, Americans will find that there are not enough hospital beds—so-called “surge capacity” is non-existent—or robust public health programs to cope with it. China has also cut back on public health care programs and, as a result, was initially unable to deal with the 2003 SARS crisis that sickened 8,000 people and killed 800.

 

Europeans, with their national health services, are better prepared, but even their public health systems have been hollowed out by years of austerity-driven economic policies. But there is a worldwide shortage of medical workers, particularly nurses.

 

In his “Second Coming,” the Irish writer William Butler Yeats seems to have foreseen the future: “Some rough beast, its time come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born.”

 

The beasts are out there, and they will be born. The Trump administration’s denial of climate change, hostility to international institutions, and laissez faire approach to governance at home will make those beasts far more dangerous than they have to be.

 

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The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth

Dispatches From The Edge

June 15, 2018

 

As the socialist-led government takes over in Spain, newly minted Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faces at least two daunting tasks: cleaning up the wreckage wrought by years of European Union (EU) enforced austerity and resolving the Catalan crisis exacerbated by Madrid’s violent reaction to last fall’s independence referendum. Unfortunately, his Party’s track record is not exactly sterling on either issue.

 

Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), patched together parties in Catalonia and the Basque region, plus the leftist Podemos Party, to oust long-time Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party (PP). But is the telegenic former economics professor up to the job, and will his Party challenge the economic program of the EU’s powerful “troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission?

 

The answers to those questions are hardly clear, and in many ways the cross currents and rip tides of Spanish politics still resemble Gerald Brenan’s classic study of the Civil War, The Spanish Labyrinth.

 

While the issue that brought Rajoy down was corruption—a massive kickback scheme that enriched scores of high-ranking PP members— his Party was already weakened by the 2015 election, and he has been forced to rely on the conservative Ciudadanos Party based in Catalonia to stay in power. In short, it was only a matter of time before he fell.

 

Sanchez promises to address the “pressing social needs” of Spaniards, although he has been vague about what that actually means. But Spain is hurting. While economic growth returned in 2013, unemployment is still at 16.1, and youth joblessness is 35 percent. Rajoy took credit for the economy’s rebound from the massive financial meltdown in 2008, but there is little evidence that budget cuts and austerity did the trick. The two main engines for growth were cheap oil and a weak currency.

 

The job growth has mainly been in short term and temp jobs, with lower pay and fewer benefits. That is not specific to Spain, however. Of the 5.2 million jobs created in the EU between 2013 and 2016, some 2.1 million of them have been short term, “mini” jobs that have been particularly hard on young people. Many continue to live at home with their aging parents, and 400,000 have emigrated to other European countries.

 

Education, health care, and infrastructure have all deteriorated under a blizzard of budget cuts, and Sanchez will have to address those problems. His party’s record on the economy, however, has been more centrist than social democratic, and the PSOE basically accepts the neo-liberal mantra of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization. It was PSOE Prime Minister Jose Zapatero who sliced more than $17 billion from the budget in 2010, froze pensions, cut child care funds and home care for the elderly, and passed legislation making it easier to lay off workers.

 

It was anger at the Socialists over rising unemployment that swept Rajoy and the PP into power in 2011. The PSOE has never recovered from that debacle, dropping from 44 percent of the vote to 24.9 percent today. It has only 84 deputies in the Parliament, just 14 more than Podemos.

 

When Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias proposed forming a government of the left. Sanchez rejected it and instead appointed all PSOE people to the cabinet. However, he will have to rely on support from the left to stay in power, and there is no guarantee that it will be there unless the Socialists step away from their centrism and begin rolling back the austerity measures.

 

Sanchez has a mixed record on leftism vs. centrism. He was ousted from the Party’s leadership last year by the PSOE’s rightwing when he considered forming a united front of the left. It was the Party’s rank and file, angered at the rightwing Socialists that allowed Rajoy to form a minority government that put him back in power. So far, Sanchez has been unwilling to consider the kind of alliance of left parties that has been so successful in Portugal.

 

The new government will also need the support of the two Catalan parties, and that will likely be an uphill slog. The Catalans just elected a government that supports independence, although its President, Quim Torra has called for “talks.”

 

The current Catalonia crisis was ignited when Rajoy torpedoed a 2006 agreement between the Spanish government and the Catalan government that would have given the province greater local control over its finances and recognized the Catalan’s unique culture. Under the prodding of the PP, the Constitutional Court overturned the agreement and shifted the dispute from the political realm to a legal issue.

 

At the time, the idea of independence was marginal in Catalonia, but the refusal of Rajoy to even discuss the issue shifted it to the mainstream. “Independentism, which until 2010 was a decidedly minority option in Catalonia, has grown immensely,” according to Thomas Harrington, a Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College, CT.

 

The Catalans began pressing for a referendum on independence—nearly 80 percent supported holding one—although it was initially seen as non-binding. Even though Podemos did not support the idea of independence, it backed the basic democratic right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. The PSOE, however, was as hard-nosed on the issue as Rajoy and the PP. Not only did the Socialists not support the right of the Catalans to vote, they backed Rajoy’s crackdown on the province, although they decried the violence unleashed on citizens trying to vote during last October’s referendum.

 

Some 2.3 million Catalans out of the 5.3 million registered voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly endorsed independence in spite of the fact that Rajoy sent some 10,000 National Police and Guardia Civil into the province to seize ballot, beat voters and injure more than 850 people. Legal procedures have been filed against over 700 mayors and elected officials, and the Catalan leadership is either in jail or on the run. While Sanchez said the crackdown was “a sad day for our democracy,” he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Catalan government.

 

Unlike Rajoy, Sanchez says he wants a dialogue with the Catalans, although he also says he intends to uphold the Spanish constitution, which does not permit secession.

 

Catalan society is deeply split. The big cities tend to be opposed to independence, as are many trade unions. The left is divided on the issue, but many young people support it. As the Financial Times’ Tobias Buck points out, “The younger generation, who have been schooled in Catalan and have less contact with the rest of Spain than their parents, are among the most enthusiastic backers of independence.”

 

It is also clear that the brutality of Rajoy’s assault has moved people in that direction, although polls show independence still does not have a majority. But in a sense, that is irrelevant. When almost half the population wants something that “something” has to be addressed, and if Buck is right about the demographics, time is running out for Madrid.

 

There are other serious constitutional issues that need to be addressed as well. Rural areas are greatly favored over cities. While it takes 125,000 voters in Madrid to elect a representative, in some rural areas it takes as few as 38,000. There is also a need to address Rajoy’s draconian laws against free speech and assembly.

 

Just how stable Sanchez’s government will be is unclear. He must keep the Basques and the Catalans on board and do enough on the economy to maintain the support of Podemos.

 

The PP is badly wounded, and the rightwing Ciudadanos Party—the only one that voted against the no confidence resolution—will be looking to fill that vacuum. Ciudadanos calls itself the “center,” but its economic policies are the same as those of the PP, and it is rabidly opposed to separatism. It performed poorly in the last election and in regional elections in Galicia and the Basque region. It did well in the recent Catalan elections, but that is because the Popular Party collapsed and its voters shifted to Ciudadanos.

 

Sanchez must recognize that the Catalan issue is political, not legal, and that force is not an option. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister Talleyrand once remarked, “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” summing up the truism that repression does not work in the long run.

 

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Why Europe’s Center-Left Keeps Losing Elections

Italy, Germany & the EU’s Future

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 19, 2018

 

More than a quarter of a century ago, much of the European center-left made a course change, edging away from its working class base, accommodating itself to the globalization of capital, and handing over the post World War II social contract to private industry. Whether it was the “New Labour” of Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schroder’s “Agenda 2010” in Germany, social democracy came to terms with its traditional foe, capitalism.

 

Today, that compact is shattered, the once powerful center-left a shadow of its former self, and the European Union—the largest trading bloc on the planet—is in profound trouble.

 

In election after election over the past year, social democratic parties went down to defeat, although center-right parties also lost voters. Last year’s election in the Netherlands saw the Labor Party decimated, though its conservative coalition partner also took a hit. In France, both the Socialist Party and the traditional conservative parties didn’t even make the runoffs. September’s elections in Germany saw the Social Democrats (GPD) take a pounding, along with their conservative alliance partners, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union. And Italy’s center-left Democratic Party was decisively voted out of power.

 

It would be easy to see this as a shift to the right. The neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has 92 seats in the Bundestag. The Dutch anti-Muslim Party for Freedom picked up five seats. The extreme rightist National Front made the runoffs in France. The racist, anti-immigrant Northern League took 17.5 percent of the Italian vote and is in the running to form a government.

 

But the fall of the center-left has more to do with the 1990s course change than with any rightward shift by the continent. As the center-left accommodated itself to capital, it eroded its trade union base. In the case of New Labour, Blair explicitly distanced the Party from the unions that had been its backbone since it was founded in 1906.

 

In Germany, the Social Democrats began rolling back the safety net, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and undermining labor codes that had guaranteed workers steady jobs at decent wages.

 

The European Union—originally touted as a way to end the years of conflict that had embroiled the continent in two world wars— became a vehicle for enforcing economic discipline on its 27 members. Rigid fiscal rules favored countries like Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, while straitjacketing countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, particularly in times of economic crisis.

 

Center-left parties all over Europe bailed out banks and financial speculators, while inflicting ruinous austerity measures on their own populations to pay for it. It became difficult for most people to distinguish between the policies of the center-right and the center-left.

 

Both backed austerity as a strategy for the debt crisis. Both weakened trade unions through “reforms” that gave employers greater power. Short-term contracts—so-called “mini jobs”—with lower wages and benefits replaced long-term job security, a strategy that fell especially hard on young people.

 

The recent Italian elections are a case in point. While the center-left Democratic Party (DP) bailed out several regional banks, its Labor Minister recommended that young Italians emigrate to find jobs. It was the Five Star Movement that called for a guaranteed income for poor Italians and sharply criticized the economics of austerity.

 

In contrast, the DP called for “fiscal responsibility” and support for the EU, hardly a program that addressed inequality, economic malaise, and youth unemployment. Euro-skeptic parties took 55 percent of the vote, while the Democrats tumbled from 41 percent four years ago to 19 percent.

 

In the German elections, the SPD did raise the issue of economic justice, but since the Party had been part of the governing coalition, voters plainly did not believe it. The Party’s leader Martin Schulz, , called for a “united states of Europe,” not exactly a barnburner phrase when the EU is increasingly unpopular.

 

Breaking a pre-election promise to go into opposition, the SPD has re-joined Merkel’s “Grand Coalition.” While the SPD landed some important cabinet posts, history suggests the Party will pay for that decision. It also allows the neo-Nazi AfG to be the official opposition in the Bundestag, handing it a bully pulpit.

 

The unwillingness of Europe’s social democrats to break from the policies of accommodation has opened an economic flank for the right to attack, and the center-left’s unwillingness to come to grips with immigration makes them vulnerable to racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Both the Italian and German center-left avoided the issue during their elections, ceding the issue to the right.

 

Europe does have an immigration problem, but it is not the right’s specter of “job-stealing, Muslim rapists” overrunning the continent. EU members—most of all Italy—have a shrinking and increasingly aged population. If the continent does not turn those demographics around—and rein in “mini jobs” that discourage young workers from having children—it is in serious long-term trouble. There simply will not be enough workers to support the current level of pensions and health care.

 

In any case, many of the “immigrants” are EU members—Poles, Bulgarians, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Romanians—looking for work in England and Germany because their own austerity-burdened economies can’t offer them a decent living.

 

The center-left did not buy into the right’s racism, but neither did it make the point that immigrants are in the long-term interests of Europe. Nor did it do much to challenge the foreign policy of the EU and NATO that actively aids or abets wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, wars that fuel millions of those immigrants.

 

One of the most telling critiques that Five Star aimed at the DP was that the Party supported the overthrow of the Libyan government and the consequent collapse of Libya as a functioning nation. Most the immigrants headed for Italy come from, or through, Libya.

 

When center-left parties embraced socially progressive policies, voters supported them. In Portugal two left parties formed a coalition with the Social Democrats to get the economy back on track, lower the jobless rate, and roll back many of the austerity measures enforced on the country by the EU. In recent local elections, voters gave them a ringing endorsement.

 

Jeremy Corbyn took the British Labour Party to the left with a program to re-nationalize railroads, water, energy and the postal service, and Labour is now running neck and neck with the Conservatives. Polls also indicate that voters like Labour’s program of green energy, improving health care, and funding education and public works.

 

The examples of Portugal and Britain argue that voters are not turning away from left policies, but from the direction that the center left has taken over the past quarter century.

 

The formulas of the right—xenophobia and nationalism—will do little to alleviate the growing economic inequality in Europe, nor will they address some very real existential problems like climate change. The real threat to the Dutch doesn’t comes from Muslims, but the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, sometime in the next few decades, will send the North Sea over the Netherland’s dikes.

 

When Europe emerged from the last world war, the left played an essential role in establishing a social contract that guaranteed decent housing, health care and employment for the continent’s people. There was still inequality, exploitation, and greed—it is, after all, capitalism—but there was also a compact that did its best to keep the playing field level. In the words of Mette Frederiksen, a leading Danish social democrat, “to save capitalism from itself.”

 

The Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan government in Washington broke that compact. Taxes were shifted from corporations and the wealthy to the working class and poor. Public services were privatized, education defunded, and the safety net shredded.

 

If the center-left is to make a comeback, it will have to re-discover its roots and lure voters away from xenophobia and narrow nationalism with a program that improves peoples’ lives and begins the difficult task of facing up to what capitalism has wrought on the planet.

 

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Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

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