• Xi Jinping and President Trump

    Authoritarian Powers in the Age of America First


    “The Authoritarian Challenge: China, Russia and the Threat to the Liberal International Order” | Aaron L. Friedberg

    “Making China Great Again” | The New Yorker

    “The Rise and Rise of Viktor Orban” | The Financial Times

     “A Sober Trump Reassures the Davos Elite” | The New York Times


    In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Western policy elites—basking in the glow of their perceived success—came to believe that the liberal international order had scored a lasting victory over humanity’s more retrograde autarchic impulses. The political theorist Francis Fukuyuma, in his oft-quoted (yet seldom understood) book entitled “The End of History and the Last Man,” predicted that liberal democracy, shorn of its most potent ideational competitor in the form of Soviet communism, would eventually assert its moral authority as the dominant political system on the planet. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that these forecasts were—if not erroneous—at least gravely premature. As Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg reminds us in a recent study on the evolving authoritarian challenge,  “illiberal, undemocratic regimes have not become extinct; instead they have adapted and evolved, learning to survive and even to thrive in the open global system that the democracies created for themselves in the wake of World War II. From weak and vulnerable fledglings, the nationalist capitalist authoritarians have grown in strength and confidence to the point where they now pose a deadly threat to the continued existence of that system.”

    The U.S.’s two main authoritarian rivals, Russia and China, do not seek so much to overturn the entire existing system, notes Friedberg, but rather to “take maximum advantage of the opportunities that the current order provided while defending themselves as best they can against the dangers that it poses.” He adds that, “In addition to hardening their own societies against subversion, deterring intervention, pushing outwards around their peripheries, and seeking to slow the formation of counterbalancing coalitions, both Moscow and Beijing have also set about to build new multilateral mechanisms of various kinds that they believe will help ensure the survival of their illiberal regimes. These structures are regional rather than global in scope, but they have already begun to extend across much of Eurasia and could eventually provide the foundation for an integrated authoritarian subsystem, nested within the larger liberal international order.”

    The dangers of such a parasitic subsystem emerging have been compounded by the ideological proclivities of the current U.S. President, and his deeply ambivalent attitude toward free trade, democracy promotion, and traditional alliance structures. In a particularly insightful piece of long form reporting, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos gives a detailed rundown of how China’s strategic elites are adapting to this shift in American politics, and in Washington’s attitude vis a vis the outside world. He reminds us that the Trump Administration’s immediate decision to unilaterally withdraw from the TPP constitutes, without a doubt, one of the US’s biggest self-inflicted wound in Asia since the Vietnam War, and—in a rather memorable turn of phrase—states that while, “Barack Obama’s foreign policy was characterized as leading from behind, Trump’s doctrine may come to be understood as retreating from the front.” For decades, Osnos notes, Chinese leaders had been planning for a momentous shift in the balance of power, one that would propel China into a position where it could sell itself as a global counter-model to Western-style liberalism. In one of the more interesting quotes in a piece festooned with them, one Chinese academic professes that China’s ultimate goal has always been to “break the Western moral advantage,” which “identifies good and bad political systems.” Under Trump, some have come to fret that this shift may be occurring a little bit faster than they would have liked.  Even the most jingoistic strategic commentators in Beijing recognize that their country—despite its impressive military, economic and technological advances—is not yet willing, or indeed prepared to take on the heavy mantle of global leadership. As Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University wryly remarks at the close of the article, the change embodied by Trump has happened too fast for even them “to digest.”

    In a similarly stellar example of long form reporting, Neil Buckley and Andrew Byrne recently published a fascinating profile of Viktor Orban, the power-mad prime minister of Hungary, in the Financial Times. In so doing, they provide a useful reminder that forces of illiberalism are not only ascendant in Asia or beyond the Urals, but also at the very heart of the European Union itself. Orban’s own journey—from democratic activist to authoritarian populist and Trump aficionado—also serves as a perfect metaphor, in many ways, of “how the historic transition to democracy in the continent’s east—which had seemed irreversible a decade ago, after 10 former communist countries had joined the EU—is starting to unravel, posing a threat to the EU’s values, perhaps even its future.” As Orban’s Hungary increasingly seeks to makes common cause with other “hybrid” or “illiberal” democracies in Central and Eastern Europe—such as Poland—the EU will need to provide a viable ideological counter-offensive, and perhaps even take some more punitive measures, in response to this assault on its own values.

    Meanwhile, President Trump gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos which the New York Times’s Pete Baker described as “relatively sober” and “restrained.” While the 45th President did call for greater fairness and reciprocity in international trade, he also sought to reassure an audience that in another setting and context he might have lambasted as “globalists” that “America First did not mean America Alone,” and that an economically vibrant United States remained eager to attract foreign investments. The relatively moderate tone of his speech may also be attributed to the fact that it was largely written by Gary Cohn, his centrist National Economic Advisor, and not an incendiary reactionary such as Stephen Miller. That said, things degenerated somewhat during the Q and A, when the American President reiterated his longstanding critiques of the press. According to various accounts, this was met by boos and hissing from the audience.

  • Rex Tillerson

    Tillerson’s Travails

    “Rex Tillerson, Visiting Europe, Gets Cold Shoulder” | The New York Times

    “Tillerson Seeks to Reassure Worried Europe Over Trump” | Reuters

    “Tillerson Visits Brussels Amid Doubts About his Future, and His Boss” | Politico Europe

    “The Worst Secretary of State in Living Memory” | The Atlantic

    “Replacing Tillerson with Pompeo Would Supplant a Moderate with a Hawk” | The New York Times


    When Rex Tillerson was chosen as Secretary of State, there was some hope that he might prove to be a decent—if not exceptional—defender of U.S. interests and values around the world. After all, leading American businessmen have occasionally proved to be almost equally shrewd statesmen—George Schultz and Robert Mcnamara come to mind—and Tillerson came highly recommended by luminaries of the Republican national security establishment, such as Robert Gates and Condoleeza Rice. His opening remarks to State Department employees gathered in the Dean Acheson auditorium seemed to hit all the right notes, and presented a welcome degree of normalcy shortly after the Neronian spectacle of Donald Trump’s unhinged address at the CIA.

    Rapidly, however, it has become evident that Rex Tillerson is an abject failure. In fact, as Eliot Cohen notes in a scathing essay for The Atlantic, it would appear that the former CEO of Exxon Mobil is “the worst Secretary of State in living memory.” Cohen provides the reasoning behind this assessment in an elegantly crafted but devastating paragraph:

    Tillerson was, as is now recognized even by those who put him there, a disaster. As with most spectacular Washington flame-outs, his failures stem not from stupidity or general incompetence, but from a specific set of disabilities: an introverted and cocooned style of management that gave power to a few hated but overwhelmed and incompetent gatekeepers; insufficient skill at buttering up his volatile boss who, in an unguarded moment, the secretary seems to have characterized as a “moron”; morbid suspicion and sequestration of the State Department press, alienating a collection of hopeless foreign-policy wonks who normally fall in love with the secretary and sing his or her praises accordingly; management-jargon-laden reforms heavy on business-speak and low on familiarity with the work of diplomacy that demoralized the foreign service; and incapacity at finding and pushing through appointees who might do the work of diplomacy. He was a debacle, pure and simple, the worst secretary of state in living memory (and there has been serious competition) not because of ineptitude, but because of the semi-intentional demolition job he was doing on his own department even as he fell out of presidential favor.

    The problem, however, is that the slippery, pusillanimous folks at the White House have not mustered the courage to formally push him out. Rather, through a drip drip strategy of leaks akin to ancient Chinese water torture, they are hoping to make his life so miserable that he will leave of his own accord. For close American allies, this is an uncomfortable position to be in. They know that Tillerson has lost the ear of the President, that a “Rexit” is in the offing, and that he has become a lame duck in Washington. And yet, as Europeans displayed this week during his visit, they must still go along with the motions and pretend that what he says matters and reflects the thinking of the President.

    Behind the scenes—and the forced smiles, and awkward handshakes of this elaborate diplomatic masquerade—many European leaders and diplomats are quietly simmering with rage over the Trump Administration’s chronic disregard for their nations’ interests and views. As Robin Emmott at Reuters notes, European concerns about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy “have created a rift on a host of issues.”

    European allies are troubled by Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, his decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with a nuclear deal, his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and now plans to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

    Although Tillerson tried to strike a reassuring tone—by affirming the United States’ “ironclad” commitment to NATO’s Article V, EU governments recognize that his views are not necessarily reflective of those of the White House. The tension was particularly visible during his meeting with Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, in Brussels on Tuesday. As the New York Times’s Gardiner Harris notes,

    Mr. Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric and frequent complaints about what he sees as European freeloading on American military spending has long grated on European leaders, but in recent weeks their annoyance has turned to anger. When Mr. Tillerson and Ms. Mogherini gave public statements, Ms. Mogherini never smiled and she refused to answer questions.

    David M. Herzenhorn at Politico made the caustic observation that Federica Mogherini “looked like she would be happier in a dentist’s chair,” and that she “welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday with all the warmth of a December day in Helsinki.”

    Despite these tensions and growing misgivings—particularly in countries such as Germany—Europe’s national security communities realize that the United States remains an indispensable partner, and a valued ally. Transatlantic ties may be under severe strain, but their sinews are strengthened by decades of friendship and cooperation, and most observers believe that they will survive the storm of the Trump presidency. Which is why European allies are paying such close attention to the rumors surrounding Tillerson’s most likely replacement at the head of the State Department.  For months now, various sources have strongly suggested that this might be Mike Pompeo, the canny Kansan currently leading the CIA.  Pompeo is widely recognized as a brilliant, albeit hard-charging political operative. European allies are reassured, to a certain extent, by the fact that he has succeeded where Tillerson failed, by simultaneously cultivating close relationships with his mercurial commander-in-chief, as well as with his more seasoned subordinates in the intelligence community. According to Mark Lander in the New York Times, Mr. Trump..

    …has come to value Mr. Pompeo’s pungent opinions and hard-charging style during his presidential briefings.  (…) Mr. Pompeo, analysts said, would bring other qualities to the State Department that could make him more effective than Mr. Tillerson, not least his healthy relationship with the president. Mor. Pompeo has won credit at the CIA for consulting the agency’s professional staff, something that Mr. Tillerson has conspicuously chosen not to do.

    Concerns remain, however, over his deeply ideological nature, and the seemingly knee-jerk quality of his hawkism toward complex international issues that directly impinge on European security, such as Iran. All in all, however, there is little doubt in European capitals that he would prove a better chief diplomat than the strangely aloof figure of Rex Tillerson.



    “After the Election, Germany’s Democracy Faces its Hardest Test Since 1949” | The Washington Post

    “Revenge of the East? How Anger in the Former GDR Helped the AFD”The Guardian

    “A Jamaica Germany is Good for Europe” | The Financial Times

    “Macron’s European Defense Doctrine” Carnegie Europe

    This week, Chancellor Angela Merkel secured her fourth term in office, prolonging her already extended reign (11 years) as the European Union’s longest serving leader. The aura of her victory, however, was immediately dimmed by the unprecedented number of votes accorded to the far right, and by the relatively poor performance of Germany’s two big-tent, mainstream parties, the CDU/CSU, and the SPD. Although commentators had pointed to the rise of the far right in the weeks leading up to the election, few had predicted that close to 13% of the population would opt to vote for the Alternative fur Deutschland (AFD) party, according its representatives 94 seats in the new parliament.  As my former colleague Constanze Stelzemuller forlornly noted, “a radical right wing party entered the (German) federal legislature for the first time in half a century.” The AFD, she notes, is a “party bent on disruption and destruction. It seeks to tear down my country’s postwar centrist consensus, its postwar commitment to atonement for World War II and the Holocaust, and reconciliation with their victims. Its program is nationalistic and xenophobic, anti-European integration, anti-NATO, anti-Western, anti-Muslim, and overtly pro-Russian.” Interestingly, much as in the U.S. during the 2016 election, or in the U.K. during the Brexit campaign, there is a clear geographic aspect to the AFD vote, with many of its voters residing in the more socio-economically desolate areas of the ex-GDR, in East Germany.

    Chancellor Merkel now also finds herself compelled to operate at the head a rather unwieldy-looking coalition—nicknamed the Jamaica collation for the colors of the respective parties, which resemble the Caribbean country’s flag—composed of her own Christian democrats, the FDP, and the Greens. In the Financial Times, Guntram Wolff from the Bruegel Institute argues, somewhat counterintuitively, that this may be a good thing. A Jamaica coalition, he notes, would not be a “Eurosceptic government,” although the parties differ over issues such as debt relief and fiscal austerity. Moreover, such an eclectic grouping may actually have a positive effect on the domestic economy, with a revived focus on environmental issues, tax reduction, and digitalization.

    The real question for outside observers, however, is how this mixed result will effect Germany’s foreign and defense policy. This week, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a landmark speech on European defense cooperation. In an excellent piece for Carnegie Europe, Daniel Zeohane writes that “Macron’s main military objective is to enable Europeans to act autonomously when needed, complementing NATO’s territorial defense role with a European capacity to intervene abroad, particularly to the south of Europe.” The hyperactive French leader has put forth a number of suggestions—some of which are extremely ambitious—to revitalize European defense cooperation at a time when the U.S. is perceived as intent on reducing its overseas security commitments. “Most EU governments,” notes Keohane, “are instinctively Atlanticist on military matters. Macron wants to strengthen their European intuition.”

    With Brexit, France will become the leading military power in the European Union. There is a true opportunity, therefore, for a rebalancing of the Franco-German axis, with the French leading on security issues, and the Germans providing economic leadership. The question going forward, however is whether an internally weakened Angela Merkel will as keen, or able, to promote such grand visions of European strategic unity.

  • Painting by Eugene Delacroix "La liberte guidant le peuple"

    French Presidential Election: Picks of the Week


    John Oliver on the French Elections | Youtube

    Interview of French Ambassador Geraud Araud on CNN | CNN

    A Consequential Choice for France—And an Uncertain One | The Economist

    Marine Le Pen Leads Far-Right to Make France More French | The New York Times

    Exclusive Interview: Emmanuel Macron on Brexit, Le Pen and the Teacher Who Became His Wife | The London Times

    Terror Attack Redefines French Presidential Race in Final Dash | Politico Europe

    Macron Wants to Change France. But Will Voters Elect an Unknown? | The New York Times

    Marine Le Pen’s Bait-and-Switch Foreign Policy | Foreign Policy

    Russia’s Fake News Machin is Targeting the French Elections | Vice

    In a few hours, I will be heading up to Boston to vote in the most consequential election of my lifetime—the French presidential elections. As John Oliver caustically reminded us last week, this election is both hugely important and highly unpredictable. While the youthful centrist Emmanuel Macron currently enjoys a (very slight) advantage in the polls, he is closely trailed by the three other leading candidates; Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, Francois Fillon, an ethically compromised conservative, and Jean-Luc Melenthon, a far-left firebrand. Moreover, up to a third of French voters have declared that they are still undecided—which some dread means that they are simply reluctant to admit they intend to vote FN (Front National).

    When The Economist, a publication renowned for its sober, tempered analysis, writes that, “seldom has a European democracy been so torn between progress and disaster,” it’s time to sit up and start paying attention. Gerard Araud, the outgoing French Ambassador to the United States, was not engaging in hyperbole when he suggested that the outcome of this election will determine the survival of the European project.  Melenchon and Le Pen would be almost equally disastrous for France, NATO, and the EU. Meanwhile, Francois Fillon—a singularly uninspiring figure—has espoused an increasingly reactionary ideology, along with a disturbing tendency to parrot Vladimir Putin’s main talking points on global affairs.

    A Macron victory, on the other hand, would be a resounding victory for the liberal international order. Preternaturally gifted and erudite, he has been the only major European politician—barring Angela Merkel—to articulate a robust countervailing ideology to the current wave of populism and nativism sweeping across the West. If he ends up making it through the first round, and then prevails on May 7th (the date of the second round), expect the cradle of the Enlightenment to once again become the center of gravity for western political liberalism. If not, we may well be catapulted into a new era of darkness. – Senior Fellow Iskander Rehman

  • Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool in Washington D.C.

    An Increasingly Factionalized U.S. Foreign Policy? Picks of the Week

    Trump’s Team of Rivals: Riven By Distrust | Foreign Policy

    Building Situations of Strength: A National Security Strategy for the United States | Brookings Institution

    McMaster Has the Islamaphobes Worried. Good. | Politico Magazine

    Washington PR Offensive Fails to Quell Concerns Over Trump | Reuters

    It has become increasingly evident that there are competing factions within the Trump Administration’s national security team.  Long accustomed to pitting his subordinates one against another, the former businessman seems to have replicated this mode of governance within the White House. Back in December, Tom Wright had already noted that there appeared to be three broad factions within the Trump team: the traditionalists, the “religious warriors,” and the “America firsters.” Fast forward a few months, and this analysis seems to have been prescient. Following last week’s Munich Security Conference, a number of European officials were left scratching their heads, deeply confused over which U.S. foreign policy narrative to believe. On the one hand, there were the reassuring speeches made by Secretary Mattis and Vice President Pence. On the other, there were the daily twitter rants emanating from the Oval Office, and the disturbing reports of one of his most senior advisors’  continued staunch Europhobia.  As one German commentator noted, the conundrum that Henry Kissinger evoked when he famously asked who he should call when he wanted to talk to “Europe” seemed to have been turned on its head. “Now Europe is asking who it should call if it wants to talk to the United States.” There were some positive developments, with the news that the disgraced former NSA, Lt. General Flynn, was being replaced by Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster. McMaster is a revered military officer, with a storied battle history and a solid reputation as one of the U.S.’s leading—and most provocative—defense intellectuals. The question is whether he will be able to inject a degree of sanity into a National Security Council plagued by dysfunction and vicious bureaucratic infighting. William McCants notes that McMaster’s more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the challenges facing the Muslim World are already generating friction with the “religious warriors” in the Trump administration. Once can only hope that the pugnacious general will prevail in the looming war of attrition against the Stephen Bannons and Sebastian Gorkas of Trumpworld. Last but not least, the Brookings Institution has just released a major new report by a distinguished, bipartisan group of former national security officials. The report lays out a strategic blueprint for the reassertion of American leadership and a vision for the defense of the international liberal order. This order is increasingly under threat in an era marked by populism, socio-economic transitions, and revived great power competition. The report—which was drafted over a period of eighteen months—provides one of the most compelling demonstrations of the virtues of expertise at a time when Washington’s foreign policy establishment is incessantly vilipended and/or dismissed. One can only hope that the saner actors within the current administration—such as McMasters and Mattis—will help ensure that this report and its recommendations form the basis for more substantive and grounded foreign policy discussions within the White House. – Iskander Rehman, Senior Fellow



  • The White House in Washington D.C.

    The Trump Administration’s Mismanagement of the U.S. Alliance Portfolio: Picks of the Week

    Trump Has Provocative Words for Allies: Congress Does Damage Control | The New York Times

    Germans Now Find US as Trustworthy as Russia: Poll Shows | The Independent

    British Lawmakers Tell Their PM: Your Groveling in Front Of Trump is Embarrassing | The Washington Post

    Can Jim Mattis Fix Asia? |  Politico Magazine

    Mattis the Great, Mattis the Exploited? | War on the Rocks

    With NSC Shakeup, Bannon Gets a Seat at the Table | NPR


    Barely a fortnight has passed since the inauguration of Donald Trump, and relations with key U.S. allies have already been placed under almost unprecedented strain. The Trump administration’s mode of government—authoritarian yet startlingly inept—has dismayed foreign governments, as has the new President’s clear disdain for diplomatic norms.

    After details emerged (or were leaked) of a tense phone call in-between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia—a country which has been one of the United States’ staunchest allies since World War II—congressional leaders, ranging from Senator Bob Corker to Senator John McCain rushed into damage control mode. Across the Atlantic, European leaders have pointed to the clear threat posed to the EU by a West Wing infested with far-right ideologues overtly hostile to the European project. Recent polls show that only 22% of Germans now consider the United States trustworthy, on par with Russia.

    Theresa May’s visit to Washington, rushed and filled with painfully awkward moments, has already generated a mighty backlash in the UK, whose citizens (rightly) perceived it as unseemly and subservient. For many European leaders, there will be sizable domestic political costs in courting proximity to a man whose actions have spurred such revulsion across the old continent.

    U.S. allies are likely to place their hopes in the more qualified, and less mercurial cabinet members, such as James Mattis or Rex Tillerson. Indeed, the latter gave a remarkably gracious, and somewhat reassuring first speech on his first day at the State Department. Secretary Mattis, who is currently crisscrossing Asia, has his work cut out for him in terms of reassuring U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan. The question for most citizens of U.S. allied nations (including yours truly), however, is whether these temperate, competent, and honorable men will be able to exert genuine influence, taming their commander-in-chief’s most destructive impulses. The recent changes enacted to the U.S. National Security Council—with the elevation of figures such as Stephen Bannon—does not give much cause for optimism. U.S. allies will need to begin thinking about crafting alternative strategies, diversifying their defense relationships and placing a greater focus on strategic autonomy. The gilded age of the U.S.-led alliance system is rapidly fading from view, and it would be imprudent for its allies to bet on its return. – Senior Fellow Iskander Rehman

  • The People's Liberation Army Navy ship AOR-886 Qiandaohu visiting Stockholm

    Growing Tensions in Sino-US Relations: Picks of the Week


    Not Since Nixon Has a U.S. President Faced Such a Tough China Challenge | The National Interest

    China to Set Up Asia-Pacific Security Framework Amid Growing Mistrust Among its Neighbors | South China Morning Post

    China Links Seized Vehicles to Singapore’s Ties to Taiwan | Financial Times

    Mongolia, With Deep Ties to Dalai Lama, Turns From Him Toward China | The New York Times

    Taiwan Deploys Fighter Jets as China Enters Taiwan Strait | CNN

    Ties That Bind: How Asian Alliances Will Survive Trump | War on the Rocks


    Over the past few weeks, commentators’ attention has—understandably—been captured by the endless flow of revelations on Russia’s involvement in the U.S. political process, while concerns have grown over the direction of the incoming administration’s Russia policy. The level of discomfort is even higher overseas. Indeed, certain Central and Eastern European statesmen have openly relayed their anxiety at the prospect of falling victim to some future faustian pact between Washington and Moscow.

    At the same time, even as observers fret over the President-elect’s troubling bonhomie towards a foreign adversary, few have devoted sufficient attention to the troubling downwards spiral in U.S.-China relations. As Evan Feigenbaum comprehensively details in The National Interest, no incoming U.S. administration has had to contend with such a severe China challenge since the Nixon years. Feigenbaum notes that in light of China’s military buildup and regional assertiveness, “even the most sanguine voices (in the U.S.) now view the U.S.-China relationship as competitive, and urge the United States to respond decisively, if carefully, especially to Beijing’s security behavior in Asia.”

    Donald Trump has certainly demonstrated via twitter that he will not hesitate to openly confront China on certain core issues. The president-elect has not shown any signs, however, of having engaged in any deep reflection on how to fine-tune a more forceful balancing strategy, barring his oft stated desire to rebuild the U.S. Navy and enhance its presence in Asian waters. It remains to be seen whether certain of his more temperate and cerebral cabinet picks, such as Rex Tillerson or James Mattis, will succeed in crafting a China strategy that lends a degree of coherence and stability to Trump’s furious messaging. Indeed, the challenge posed to US leadership is a consequential one. The core difficulty for this administration, suggests Feigenbaum, will be how to balance the U.S.’s growing security role with its relatively diminished economic heft in the region,

    The American role as Asia’s security provider is being reinforced even as the region’s economy becomes increasingly pan-Asian. So this will deprive the Trump administration of tools that its predecessors mostly just took for granted. Asian governments will, in many ways, look to one another for trade, investment and, above all, a hedge against lingering market volatility from the 2008 financial crisis.

    In short, the Trump administration will be trying to make the U.S. security posture in Asia more sustainable at precisely the moment when America’s economic profile in the region is beginning to recede.

    Despite its initial bafflement at some of Donald Trump’s tweets on Taiwan and the South China Sea, Beijing has shown no signs of mollifying its behavior. Rather it appears to have chosen to raise the temperature in the South China Sea to a slow boil, repeatedly flexing its muscles in its near abroad. Over the past few weeks, it has thus intensified its efforts to coerce plucky Singapore into severing its longstanding defense ties with Taipei, refusing to release Singaporean armored vehicles it impounded in Hong Kong over a month ago. Beijing recently dispatched a carrier task force into the Taiwan Strait, in a show of strength aimed at the new DPP administration.

    Meanwhile, China’s leadership seems to have successfully pressured (for the time being at least) Mongolia, a devoutly Buddhist nation with deep historic ties to Tibet, into no longer hosting the Dalai Lama. Indeed, in the wake of his holiness’s November visit, authorities in Beijing abruptly suspended all bilateral ties with Ulan Bator, closing key border crossings and disrupting vital trade routes into the landlocked nation.

    In an important development, Chinese officials also recently unveiled a new Asia-Pacific security framework, which has been presented as a more peaceful stabilizing geopolitical construct, but which in reality places a strong emphasis on the dilution of U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the region. Last but not least, Mira Rapp-Hooper from the Center for a New American Security recently published a good overview of why, in her eyes, the U.S. hub and spokes alliance system will survive the turbulence of a Trump presidency, noting that,

    As America’s Asian allies wait with bated breath to learn what Trump will mean for them, they should also recall that security guarantees cannot actually be dismantled on a whim. Alliances are tools for threat management, but they are also institutions. Once you build them, they are hard to topple.

  • The Rise of Far Right Populism in the West: Picks of the Week

    Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash | Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris

    The Ruthlessly Effective Rebranding of Europe’s New Far Right | The Guardian

    The Power of Populism | Foreign Affairs Podcast

    What the Right’s Intellectuals Did WrongThe New York Times


    In a singularly thoughtful working paper, Ronald F. Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Pippa Norris from the Harvard Kennedy school set out to dissect the rise of populist parties in the Western world. Two theories have often been proffered to help explicate this phenomenon. The first “economic insecurity” perspective stresses the economic effects of the many changes currently ripping through our post-industrial, and increasingly automated societies. The second theory, which the authors dub the “cultural backlash” theory, lays an emphasis on “retro reactions by once-predominant sectors of the population to progressive value change.” Both academics recognize that this is an issue which cannot simply be reduced to a binary proposition, and argue that in many cases the explanations are complementary, rather than in direct competition. Overall, however, they lean on the side of the cultural backlash thesis. Although this is a meaty report—standing at over 50 pages—it is well worth at least skimming through, if only for the value of some its insights. Consider, for example, this extract, that seeks to inject greater definitional clarity to the concept of modern populism:

    What exactly is populism? There are many interpretations of this concept, and numerous attempts to identify the political parties and movements that fall into this category. Cas Mudde has been influential in the literature, suggesting that populist philosophy is a loose set of ideas that share three core features: anti-establishment, authoritarianism, and nativism.  Firstly, populism is understood as a philosophy that emphasizes faith in the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people (the silent majority) over the ‘corrupt’ establishment. Populism reflects deep cynicism and resentment of existing authorities, whether big business, big banks, multinational corporations, media pundits, elected politicians and government officials, intellectual elites and scientific experts, and the arrogant and privileged rich. Ordinary people are regarded as homogeneous and inherently ‘good’ or ‘decent’, in counterpart to dishonest elites (‘Crooked’ Hillary/’Lyin’ Ted). Secondly, populists also characteristically display authoritarian leanings, favoring the personal power exerted by strong and charismatic leadership which is thought to reflect the will of the people. Populists also favor direct forms of majoritarian democracy for the expression of the voice of the people, through opinion polls, referenda and plebiscites, rather than the institutional checks and balances and the protection of minority rights built into processes of representative democracy. Finally, by ‘ordinary people’, populist discourse typically emphasizes nativism or xenophobic nationalism, which assumes that the ‘people’ are a uniform whole, and that states should exclude people from other countries and cultures. Populism favors mono-culturalism over multiculturalism, national self-interest over international cooperation and development aid, closed borders over the free flow of peoples, ideas, labor and capital, and traditionalism over progressive and liberal social values. Hence Trump’s rhetoric seeks to stir up a potent mix of racial resentment, intolerance of multiculturalism, nationalistic isolationism, nostalgia for past glories, mistrust of outsiders, traditional misogyny and sexism, the appeal of forceful strong-man leadership, attack-dog politics, and racial and anti-Muslim animus. “Populism” is a standard way of referring to this syndrome, emphasizing its allegedly broad roots in ordinary people; it might equally well be described as xenophobic authoritarianism.

    This is many ways a well-written and illuminating passage. However, what the writers are describing is not so much “populism” as “right-wing populism,” which—while sharing certain of the themes of the far left–has a much more nativist and exclusionary hue than, say, the more internationalist variants of communism.

    This brings us to an excellent long read article by Sasha Polakow-Suransky in The Guardian this week, on the growing success of Europe’s new far right. Mr. Polakow Suransky chronicles the electoral advances made by a growing number of far right parties in Western Europe, ranging from the Front National in France, to the DPP in Denmark, to the PVV in the Netherlands. The leaders of these parties have proved much more disciplined, sophisticated, and coherent in their messaging, and have jettisoned some of the more provocative, crudely anti-Semitic or racialist tirades of their predecessors in favor of a new form of “far right politics in progressive garb.” Indeed, parties such as France’s Front National or Denmark’s DDP, through their savvy instrumentalization of working class rage and anti-immigrant sentiment, have succeeded in siphoning away votes from the left. Marine Le Pen, for instance, proudly points to her party’s recent conquest of the Nord Pas de Calais region, which had been socialist-communist for close to eight decades.

    In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis and a wave of terrorist attacks, concerns have grown in European societies over the rise of Islamism, or of what some view as a creeping “islamization” of society. Europe’s new far right groups, which have proven frighteningly adept in their use of social media, have surfed on this tide of anxiety, reaching out to groups who would never formerly have considered voting for them. Suransky thus describes how “among openly gay couples and religious Jews alike, there is a palpable fear of being targeted by homophobic or anti-Semitic young Muslim men.” Parties such as the PVV have succeeded not only in capturing more votes across a broader socio-economic spectrum, but have also managed to shift the very tone of the political discussion, steering it to the right. The author concludes by rightly noting that,

    If political parties want to win, they must first abandon the old strategy of marginalizing populist movements and instead engage them on the merits—and flaws—of their policies and counter their message of fear.

    This may be more easily said than done, however, notes Ross Douthat, a leading conservative columnist, in the New York Times. In the first of what will no doubt be a very long series of pained post-mortems of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln (regardless of who wins Tuesday’s elections), Douthat wonders whether it is possible for conservative intellectuals to build “a more intellectually serious populism out of the Trumpian wreckage,” adding,

    But can the populist right actually be de-Hannitized, de-Trumpified, rendered 100 percent Breitbart-free? Or would building on populism once again just repeat the process that led conservatism to its present end?

    Last but not least, Foreign Affairs has released an excellent podcast on the power of populism, featuring Pankaj Mishra, Cas Mudde, and Nadia Urbinati. To the question of why European right wing populism has effectively supplanted populist messaging from the far left, Cas Mudde, a leading specialist on political extremism in Europe, replies the following,

    In most countries the agenda, the political agenda, is dominated by social cultural themes, and so by and large there is still very little debate about social economic policies. Most of the mainstream parties have agreed that austerity in one form or another is the only way to go, which means that we increasingly speak about social cultural issues, how many immigrants should we take? What kind of values should they adopt? How much Europe should there be? And these are issues that benefit, generally, the radical right rather than the radical left.


    – Senior Fellow Iskander Rehman

    Image courtesy of Rémi Noyon

  • Map of the South China Sea.

    Ongoing Tensions in Asia: Picks of the Week

    Rodrigo Duterte, Scorned Abroad, Remains Popular in the Philippines | The New York Times

    If Duterte Kicks Out U.S. Special Operators, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall | War on the Rocks

    Vietnam Says No to Foreign Military Base on its Soil | Reuters

    Everything is Not Well in the South China Sea | The Huffington Post Australia

    As Donald Trump’s campaign enters its Gotterdammerung phase, our attention has been captured by the endless tawdriness of this year’s presidential election.  While we remain riveted to the steady flow of gutter politics spewing from the U.S. news cycle, it can be easy to forget there is a lot going on in other parts of the world—and in Asia in particular. In the Philippines, for example, a populist, intemperate, and bombastic leader is injecting tensions into the longstanding U.S.-Filipino alliance on an almost daily basis. Over the past week, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte thus repeatedly threatened to revise core aspects of the military relationship in-between Washington and Manila, by expelling U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in Mindanao, or by purchasing weaponry from neighboring China. In War on the Rocks, Ryan Rockwell, a U.S. Army Captain with operational experience in the Philippines, provides a useful analysis of the perilous ramifications of such a decision, which, incidentally, already seems to have been disavowed by the Filipino Defense Secretary. Duterte’s erratic, and often obscene, rhetoric, when combined with his increasingly brutal campaign of internal repression, has raised concerns in Western and Asian capitals. In The New York Times, Aurora Almendral draws attention to the fact that even though the septuagenarian demagogue is despised in Washington, he still commands ardent support at home. Indeed, many citizens, somewhat depressingly, seem to find a certain appeal in his unabashed authoritarianism and promotion of bloody vigilantism.

    Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry felt compelled to issue a statement reiterating its post-Cold War policy of neutrality, firmly rejecting the notion that any countries would be able to base military assets on its soil. Since the end of the Cold War, rumors have swirled that various countries—ranging from India, to Russia or the United States—might set up a permanent naval presence in the deepwater port of Cam Ranh bay, which hosted Soviet naval forces during the Cold War. While Hanoi has certainly drawn closer to the United States over the past few years—largely due to its growing concern over China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea—this statement is a reminder that one should not expect Vietnamese security managers to compromise on their conception of strategic autonomy any time soon.

    With regard to the South China Sea, Eoin Blackwell provides a good, accessible summary of ongoing tensions in the region in the Australian version of the Huffington Post. This Australian perspective is particularly valuable, at a time when Beijing issued yet another threat-laden “warning” to both Canberra and Wellington, urging Australia to “speak and act cautiously on the South China Sea issue,” and instructing New Zealand to not “get involved” in the regions territorial disputes.

    – Senior Fellow Iskander Rehman

  • The Growing Challenges to the Liberal World Order: Picks of the Week

    American Power and Liberal Order | The National Interest

    Germany Embraces Realpolitik Once More | War on the Rocks

    America’s Pacific Pivot is Sinking | The Financial Times

    Assessment of Obama’s Long Game: A Conversation with Eliot Cohen and Derek Chollet | Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

    Ambassador Gerard Araud: Discussion at the Watson Institute | Brown University

    The Bureau Season 1 | Canal+ Productions (available with English subtitles on iTunes).


    The National Interest recently released a long excerpt of Paul Miller’s most recent book, published by Georgetown University Press under the title American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy. Paul Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Austin. In addition to his academic career, Miller has had a rich experience in government and in the intelligence community, serving on the National Security staff, as an analyst for the CIA, and as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. His book—along with the National Interest piece which summarizes its core themes—is an elegantly framed and cogently argued defense of the U.S.’s internationalist foreign policy tradition. The timing of its release, in the midst of a presidential election opposing two very different visions of the American Republic’s role in the world, could not be more apt.

    Miller rightly points out that Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy proposals amount to a “repudiation of the liberal international order—an order of which the U.S. has been a chief architect, beneficiary, and guarantor since WWII.” He cautions that Trump’s autarkic and mercantilist worldview, however haphazardly articulated, should not be viewed in isolation from other broader, troubling, trends in U.S. public opinion. Indeed, recent Pew polling data has showed a growing proportion of Americans (and Europeans for that matter) believe that their nation, “should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems.”

    It remains to be seen whether the recent surge of this isolationist strain of thought is merely a temporary phenomenon, resulting from a justifiable fatigue after over a decade and a half of involvement in the Middle East, or whether it constitutes something more enduring. In any case, argues Miller, the advocates of internationalism now face “an urgent task: to explain why liberal order matters, and why the advocates for restraint are wrong.” His book helps furnish some of the intellectual groundwork for this effort, particularly when he painstakingly dismantles the positions held by some self-professed academic “realists,” who—as my former Brookings colleague Tom Wright has wryly noted—are often quite unrealistic in terms of their proposals.

    This debate over America’s role in the world is occurring at a time marked by the resurgence of great power rivalry, and by growing uncertainty and instability. Large portions of the globe are caught in seemingly unending spirals of conflict, and longstanding borders have been modified, violated, or erased. Since the end of the 1990s, Europe had been viewed as a relatively placid, post-historical region, free of illiberalism and territorial tensions. Developments over the past few years have upended this vision. In the words of Robert Kagan, the jungle has now entered the postmodern European garden. Concerns over Russian revanchism, mass immigration, and terrorism have profoundly affected strategic thinking and planning in major European capitals, and perhaps in ways that have not yet been fully appreciated by most American policymakers.

    Writing in War on the Rocks, John R. Deni, a Professor at the U.S. Army War College, discusses how these recent developments have influenced German thinking, and engages in an in-depth analysis of their latest Defense White Paper, or Weissbuch.  This White Paper, which comes a full decade after its predecessor in 2006, constitutes, according to Deni, a “significant step forward in Germany’s ongoing transformation to a normal power.” It emphasizes Germany’s increased willingness to participate in extra-European military activities and “coalitions of the willing,” engages in a hard-edged appraisal of Berlin’s national interests, and may come to be viewed, in retrospect, as something of a paradigm shift in Germany’s post-Cold War thinking.

    Concerns over the future of the global order are equally widespread in Asia, especially following China’s truculent reaction to the recent international ruling over the South China Sea.  In the Financial Times, foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman provides a sobering overview of the some of the troubles currently ailing U.S. Asia policy. Whether these troubles take the form of obscene outbursts from intemperate allies, the U.S.’s seeming inability to shape China’s behavior in a positive direction, or growing doubts over the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it is clear that the next U.S. administration will have to contend with an increasingly rivalrous and fractured Asia-Pacific region.

    This points to a larger, and somewhat controversial, issue. When confronted with such depressing levels of turmoil in many of the world’s key regions, should one attribute a measure of responsibility, or apportion a degree of blame, to the actions undertaken—or not undertaken—by the Obama Administration? This is a discussion which has raged within the U.S. strategic community for some time, and which has not always cut across party lines, with many Democrat national security professionals not hesitating to levy harsh criticism, particularly over the White House’s Syria policy. All too often, however, these debates are clouded by partisan rancor. This debate in-between Eliot Cohen and Derek Chollet, held at SAIS last week, is a refreshingly civilized discussion in-between two singularly thoughtful individuals. Derek Chollet, who recently left government to join the German Marshall Fund, has written perhaps the best articulated defense of Obama’s foreign policy. In the course of their discussion of his book, “The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World,” Eliot Cohen provides an equally robust critique, before opening it up to the students.

    Another discussion worth watching is that involving the French Ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, and held on September 13th at the Watson Institute at Brown University. With a large twitter following, and an acerbic wit, Ambassador Araud is something of a celebrity in Washington. He is also one of France’s most talented and intellectually formidable diplomats, and something of (as he himself readily confesses) a “professor in the closet.” His talk provides a much-needed, didactic overview of some of the key differences in-between the French and U.S. traditions of secularism. Ambassador Araud also discusses some of the common economic challenges faced by Western democracies, and of the linkages one can establish between enduring socio-economic inequalities and the spread of nativism and populism.

    Last but not least, and while we are on the topic of France, iTunes recently made available Season 1 of The Bureau, a widely lauded French TV show (with English subtitles). The Bureau, which follows the actions of France’s external intelligence agency, the DGSE, is considered by many in the intelligence community to be one of the best, most accurate, and geopolitically sophisticated shows on espionage. It helps that the actors are uniformly excellent (with the talented and suitably cryptic Mathieu Kassovitz in the main role), and that apparently almost every aspect of the real DGSE offices have been meticulously recreated on set. Consider this the better, and slightly world-wearier, French version of Homeland.

    Dr. Iskander Rehman, Senior Fellow for International Relations