What Trump’s taxes tell us about his foreign entanglements

“Trump has back-slapped the authoritarian leaders of the three main countries cited by the Times’s report: the Philippines, India, and Turkey. It’s less clear now if the bonhomie stems from their diplomatic relationships or because they lead nations that are lucrative for the president.

Turkey is perhaps the best example of this conundrum.

Trump said last year that he was a “big fan of” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but their relationship hit some snags over Ankara’s attacks on US allies in Syria and its unlawful imprisonment of an American pastor.

When US-Turkey ties were low, the Times recalled a few curiosities:

“[In 2018,] a Turkish business group canceled a conference at Mr. Trump’s Washington hotel; six months later, when the two countries were on better terms, the rescheduled event was attended by Turkish government officials. Turkish Airlines also chose the Trump National Golf Club in suburban Virginia to host an event [in 2017].”

In other words, countries like Turkey can potentially find ways to Trump’s heart by ensuring money goes into his family’s pocket in hopes of altering US foreign policy. The Trump Organization, then, gives nations an unprecedented extra leverage point to influence an American president.”

“If the president makes decisions based on his private interests, and not the public’s, then he’s subjugating the demands of US foreign policy for the bottom line of his family’s business.”

“That issue becomes more acute when you factor in Trump’s $421 million in debt, much of it owed in the next four years. It’s unclear exactly who he owes that money to, but it’s not unreasonable given the scope of the Trump Organization’s foreign business to assume some of the debt is held by foreign lenders”

China’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2060, explained

“Imagine China — the world’s top emitter of carbon, which in 2019 released nearly double the emissions of the US — with almost zero coal power plants.

Imagine it with zero gasoline-powered cars, and with more than four times the 1,200 gigawatts of solar and wind power capacity installed across the world today.

This could become reality by mid-century if China follows through on President Xi Jinping’s latest commitment to addressing the climate emergency.”

“the target puts China more closely in alignment with the European Union, the UK, and other countries that have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said is required to prevent over 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. In the US, some states and cities have moved in this direction, too. For instance, former governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order in 2018 for California to be carbon neutral by 2045. And Michigan’s governor made the same commitment Wednesday.

Along with the pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060, Xi Jinping also announced that China would submit a stronger set of goals under the Paris agreement and that China would aim to peak carbon emissions before 2030, upping the commitment from “around” 2030.

Meanwhile, in his UNGA remarks, President Trump defended his decision to withdraw the US from the “one-sided” Paris agreement while criticizing China for “rampant pollution.”

Increasingly, China is demonstrating it will use climate as a way to upstage the US, with Xi repeatedly committing to incremental climate action on the international stage in recent years.”

“Besides the geopolitical motivations, China also has a lot to lose from unmitigated climate change, from catastrophic floods like those this summer in the central Yangtze River Basin to worsening heat waves and sea-level rise, which will have a huge impact on coastal cities like Shanghai by 2050.”

“China has yet to publish an official plan for how it would achieve carbon neutrality, but climate researchers have mapped out pathways. The good news: Researchers say it is possible. Some of the key shifts are already underway — toward electric vehicles and renewable energy, for example. But China will be entering uncharted territory when it comes to cleaning up its behemoth steel and cement industries.”

“The next few months will reveal how serious China is about accelerating its decarbonization.”

“China’s announcement may also have ripple effects on other countries as they choose whether to more aggressively tackle climate change, in the absence of US leadership, approaching the next major UN negotiations on climate change (COP 26), which will be held in November 2021.

“For China, who is experiencing economic ramifications of Covid like every other country, to come out and make this kind of bold statement on carbon neutrality could potentially sway the balance of countries who have been taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to their enhanced ambition climate pledges ahead of COP-26,” Hsu said. Here’s hoping it does.”

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, explained

“One of the world’s longest-standing frozen conflicts has thawed into a hot war, leading to over 350 deaths and potentially encouraging world powers to enter the fray — which could make a lethal situation even worse.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have reignited their 32-year struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory of 150,000 people about the size of Delaware. The territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it’s claimed and governed by ethnic Armenians. The two sides haven’t reached a lasting diplomatic resolution to the dispute since a war that killed 30,000 people or more ended in a 1994 ceasefire, leaving open the possibility of renewed deadly fighting.

That worst-case scenario proved a reality last week after the former Soviet territories accused each other of unprovoked attacks. On September 27, Armenia said Azerbaijan’s military bombed civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the regional capital of Stepanakert. In response, Armenia’s defense ministry claimed it downed two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones. Azerbaijan didn’t take that lightly, with its defense ministry saying it launched a “counteroffensive” with tanks, war planes, artillery missiles, and drones.

Past skirmishes typically lasted no more than a few days, but this one has only continued and intensified. Stepanakert, a city of over 50,000 people, has experienced heavy artillery fire from Azerbaijan since October 2, while Azerbaijan says Armenia has shelled the country’s second-largest city, Ganja, and other missiles elsewhere — each assault putting civilians in grave danger.”

“Turkey, a NATO member, is only making matters worse. It has fully backed Azerbaijan, with observers alleging it has sent at least 1,000 Syrian fighters to help and providing the country’s forces with weapons and training. That’s provocative, experts say, as it not only fans the flames of war, but also threatens the control and calming influence Russia has had over the conflict.”

“so far Russia, which oversees the sputtering diplomatic process over the area along with France and the United States, has called for restraint alongside its counterparts.”

“Most experts I spoke to fear the fighting won’t end until either Armenia deals Azerbaijan a militarily decisive blow, or Azerbaijan reclaims much or all of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding regions. When I mentioned that concern to Zareh Sinanyan, Armenia’s high commissioner for diaspora affairs, he said bluntly: “That is true.””

“The first person to blame for the current conflict is former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. In 1921, he gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, only to turn it into an autonomous region two years later. That change would inevitably prove problematic, as Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was over 90 percent Armenian. On top of this, most Armenians are Christian, while Azerbaijan is majority Muslim; thus, Stalin’s decision effectively turned the territory into a Christian-majority enclave in a Muslim-majority nation.”

“The conflict that erupted last week actually began back in mid-July. During days of border fighting, Armenia killed seven Azerbaijani service members, including a top, popular Army general. “Armenia’s political and military leadership will bear the entire responsibility for the provocation,” Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, vowed at the time.

Later that month, Turkey joined Azerbaijan for two weeks of military drills featuring armored vehicles, artillery, and mortars. It was billed as an annual exercise, but the message was clear: Azerbaijan was preparing for a real fight and Turkey had its back. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made that point explicitly last Friday.”

“experts note Azerbaijan has been careful not to attack civilian areas in Armenia proper. Doing so might trigger a defense treaty Russia has with Armenia requiring Moscow to come to Yerevan’s defense militarily.”

At the UN, China’s Xi showed he understands the system better than Trump

“when the United States walks away from cooperative bodies — from the Paris climate accord to the WHO — it leaves behind a vacuum. China has hastened to fill it, and that, more than anything, is bolstering Beijing’s rise and influence. It gives China a chance to be a good guy — say, pledging $30 million to the WHO when the US threatened to withdraw, a fraction of the money the US provides annually. The Trump administration, in abandoning institutions for being too China-centric, is allowing them to become just that. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Again, this is not to say the US doesn’t have legitimate criticisms of the WHO, or China. But by refusing to work within the system, it is actively ceding leverage and losing credibility. Last week, in a discussion with reporters about the implications of the US leaving the WHO, Elizabeth Cousens, the president and CEO of the UN Foundation, said that even as the US is trying to push the WHO to reform, it’s “losing influence in that conversation because they’ve stepped off the field.””

The Export-Import Bank’s China Program Lacks Vision

“Vast research shows that, while subsidies might prop up the direct recipients, governments that subsidize harm their economies overall. That said, in the name of national security or geopolitical concerns, these principles may sometimes be traded off against other concerns.

But this doesn’t mean that all subsidies should get a free pass. There must be a concrete strategy behind the effort to use subsidies in this way. For instance, China mostly operates in lower-income nations. If Ex-Im is serious about competing with China, that’s where its loans should be going, rather than continuing to finance foreign borrowers in rich countries such as Italy, France, or the United Arab Emirates, where they’re served well by a commercial banking market.

Ex-Im’s recent annual conference was full of bold statements about fighting China as mandated by Congress during the agency’s reauthorization process back in December 2019. Unfortunately, despite much bluster from its leadership, there’s been no fundamental change in the way Ex-Im operates or in which companies Ex-Im extends financing to with taxpayer backing.”

“the Export-Import Bank’s failure ultimately lies with the policymakers who believe an agency that has been devoted to serving well-connected companies for so long would actually change.”

Trump loves sanctioning foreign countries — but he’s terrible at it

“Change the Iranian regime’s behavior? Sanctions. Dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal? Sanctions. Depose Venezuela’s dictator? You guessed it: Sanctions.

That indiscriminate wielding of America’s economic might — in a strategy his administration labels “maximum pressure” — is a trademark of Trump’s foreign policy. No president, in the minds of experts I spoke with, has relied so heavily on sanctions to solve intractable problems.

But at the same time, experts I spoke to said no president has failed so clearly to grasp the nature of financial warfare and how to deploy it effectively.

“I’ve never seen a president use sanctions as much or as clumsily,” said David Baldwin, an international economics expert at Princeton University. “He’s like a bull in a china shop.””

“Trump has little to show for his efforts. Iran’s leadership remains in power and is no closer to reaching a new diplomatic pact with the US over its nuclear program. North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenals have grown in numbers and strength. And Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, still shows no sign of letting control of the country slip through his clenched fist.

That’s not to say Trump didn’t inflict economic harm on foreign countries, leaders, and individuals in his first term. US sanctions are directly responsible for deepening financial crises in all three nations, exacerbating woes caused by local mismanagement, corruption, and coronavirus outbreaks.

But that devastation has hurt millions of people in those countries much more than it has helped the Trump administration achieve its goals, making it easier for regimes to blame the US — and not themselves — for the pain.

The fundamental problem with Trump’s approach: He believes sanctions will get him what he wants, but he demands too much in return for their removal, or undermines them through weak enforcement and ever-shifting policies.”

“US sanctions can be very effective — and debilitating — but they work best when a president understands their limitations, how to make them stick, and when to coordinate them with other countries.

Otherwise, the nation those measures may end up isolating most is America”

Trump, Self-Proclaimed Ender of Endless Wars, Is Reducing the U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq to Where It Was in 2015

“The Journal reports that the departure of some 1,700 troops from Iraq will occur over the next few months. Once gone, America’s military presence in that country will be where it was in 2015.

Under Trump, America’s troop commitment to our various foreign wars has oscillated; first surging then tapering off.

PolitiFact notes that when Trump came into office there were around 8,500 troops in Afghanistan. The president increased our military presence up to 14,000 personnel but has since drawn it back down to where it was at the beginning of Trump’s term. That number is supposed to fall to 4,000 in November.

Under Trump, the Defense Department has stopped publishing troop numbers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, making it difficult to get an accurate count of how much military personnel is in those countries. The Washington Post reported in July that the number of U.S. troops stationed abroad has slightly increased under Trump.

Outside of troop levels, Trump has amped up the drone war and vetoed a resolution to end U.S. participation in the war in Yemen. He has also escalated tensions with Iran by tearing up the 2015 nuclear deal signed under the Obama administration, reapplying sanctions, and deploying additional aircraft and ships to the region in response to alleged Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

In January, the Trump administration assassinated Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, provoking an Iranian missile counterattack on U.S. military bases in the country.”

Do you really need to worry about your security on TikTok? Here’s what we know.

“TikTok has repeatedly denied that it has or ever would give up user data to the Chinese government. The company says it stores American user data on servers in the US and Singapore, which ostensibly would make it harder for the Chinese government to tap into. The company has also taken measures to separate its US business overall from its Chinese parent company. For example, TikTok doesn’t operate in China (the Chinese version of it, Douyin, does).

The CIA reportedly investigated TikTok’s security threat and found no proof that Chinese intelligence authorities have been snooping on Americans through TikTok, according to the New York Times. The agency’s assessment still found that Chinese authorities could potentially tap into Americans’ data through the app, according to the Times’s summary of the classified report. That’s why last December, the Department of Defense cautioned military personnel to delete TikTok from their smartphones over security concerns. And the Senate voted unanimously to ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices last week.

“There’s no publicly available evidence that TikTok has ever done anything wrong,” said Segal, “but the concern is that because the Chinese National Intelligence Law of 2017 says any Chinese company can be drafted into espionage, a company could be forced to hand over the data.””

“A second area of concern is that apps like TikTok and WeChat censor content that the Chinese Communist Party disapproves of. On this front, there are more documented concerns, especially about WeChat.

WeChat has been found to intercept and censor political messages sent by Chinese users to US users. A report in May by Canadian researchers CitizenLab found that the app was blocking certain messages, including a political cartoon depicting the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was critical of the Chinese government. The report also found that WeChat was analyzing messages sent by international users, including those in the US, to scan for and block politically sensitive content before it could circulate among Chinese users.

With TikTok, there have been accusations — without definitive proof — of censorship at the behest of the Chinese government. Last year, internal company documents showed TikTok was instructing its staff to moderate content in line with the Chinese government’s censorship of topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre and Free Tibet, according to leaked guidelines published by the Guardian. But these guidelines were part of broad rules against controversial discussions on international politics across countries, so there’s no explicit proof that this was a directive from the Chinese government to TikTok. Another oft-cited concern about potential political censorship on TikTok is that during last year’s Hong Kong independence protests, there weren’t a lot of results for popular hashtags of the protest movement. But there’s no proof that the company was actively censoring content or whether people just weren’t posting about it.”

“It’s important to put all of this in context. TikTok and WeChat’s political troubles in the US don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather inside a larger web of complex China-US politics. Since 2018, Trump has waged a trade war with China over free trade policies that he feels disadvantage US manufacturing. And increasingly, tech has become tangled up in this war, involving Chinese-owned dating apps, drone companies, and telecom hardware makers.”

“Chesney stressed, the US isn’t making the first move here. American companies have long been banned in China, where companies that started off by building copycats of major US tech apps — Baidu is China’s answer to Google, Didi its Uber, Weibo its Twitter — have grown into tech powerhouses. US social media companies have tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the Chinese market.”

“Several analysts told Recode that some of the concern about TikTok and other Chinese technology companies is valid. But the way the TikTok order in particular has been executed — with Trump going back and forth on whether he’d approve a TikTok-Microsoft sale, and at one point demanding a cut of the deal — has been haphazard and has given the global business community a sense of distrust toward the US government.”

Beirut’s Blast Is a Warning for America

“The United States is becoming like Lebanon and other Middle East countries in two respects. First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power. They call theirs “Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites” or “Israelis and Palestinians.” We call ours “Democrats and Republicans,” but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die.

And second, as in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.”

“But a society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics. Governance gets strangled by it. Indeed, it was reportedly the failure of the corrupt Lebanese courts to act as guardians of the common good and order the removal of the explosives from the port — as the port authorities had requested years ago — that paved the way for the explosion.
“For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good,” explained the Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

To put it differently, when everything is politics, it means that everything is just about power. There is no center, there are only sides; there’s no truth, there are only versions; there are no facts, there’s only a contest of wills.

If you believe that climate change is real, it must be because someone paid you off with a research grant. If you believe the president committed an impeachable offense trying to enlist the president of Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, it’s only because you want power for your party.

Illiberal populists like Trump — or Bibi Netanyahu in Israel, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia — deliberately try to undermine the guardians of facts and the common good. Their message to their people is: “Don’t believe the courts, the independent civil servants or the fake news generators — only trust me, my words and my decisions. It’s a jungle out there. My critics are killers (which is what Trump called his press corps on Friday), and only I can protect our tribe from theirs. It’s rule or die.””