Top of the Pops
Tomorrow is inevitably going to have to respond to the results that come in today in the US. Odds are good I will not have slept and I’m likely to take the chance to just write a personal reflection. I know it’s a digression from the main content of this newsletter, but given just how weighty the moment is, it’ll be hard to do anything else in the morning.
A short roundup from Eurasia:
- Putin’s been holding consultative talks with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials from what looks like a defensive crouch. Moscow only appears willing to offer direct military support in the event that Azerbaijani forces attack territory legally recognized as Armenia. Aliyev has obviously touted Yerevan’s request for aid as proof that Armenia is losing the conflict, with claims out now that Azerbaijan has taken out Armenia’s drone complement in Nagorno-Karabakh. Aliyev’s attempts to deepen economic cooperation with Turkey continue.
- After squeaking out a win in elections on Oct. 31 with 48% of the vote, Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream are now facing trouble: the opposition are refusing to take their seats in parliament despite GD’s ability to form a government without a coalition. The stand-off is heading into second round elections for a bunch of mandates as the opposition accuses Ivanishvili and co. of stealing the election. It’s going to get ugly politically. The OSCE has effectively endorsed the vote as free (within bounds) so finding foreign help is a steep climb.
- Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are holding talks to harmonize and liberalize customs barriers for up to 64 goods, including cars, petrochemicals, pipes, pharmaceuticals, and more. The talks are noteworthy because of Uzbekistan’s observer status in the EAEU and the political use of the COVID crisis to push for further trade liberalization.
- Over 300 were arrested from protests in Belarus on Nov. 1 with no end in sight to protest activity. Lukashenka is riding it out so far, but lacking any room to ask the West or China for help, the question now is how long Moscow is happy to have him in power. Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko has taken pains to message that Minsk is happy to buy crude volumes from elsewhere, as it has before from Iran, for example. They’re holding onto whatever wiggle room is left.
- Sadyr Japarov is learning the hard way that Moscow isn’t going to cozy up just because he doesn’t like China. A changing of the guard is never welcome when it comes as a result of popular pressure or elite politicking as a nasty shock. Worth following more as Japarov revs up for the re-do elections.
- Maia Sandu squeaks past Igor Dodon in the first round of Moldova’s presidential elections with 36.16% of the vote. Since no one passed 50%, a run-off is to be held on Nov. 15. Sandu is the pro-European candidate on offer and has been in her own personal orientation, but as always, Moldova’s politics don’t necessarily follow geopolitical battle lines between Russia and “the west.” European integration offers plenty of riches for the well-to-do and connected, but also more hope for resolving the country’s economic stagnation and crisis, particularly with the outflow of labor into Romania and other EU members.
The Art of the Feels
Read Joe Biden’s statement on Nagorno-Karabakh from October 10 carefully and you’re left with basically no earthly idea what he thinks is achievable or how to go about doing what he says. To quote:
“The Trump Administration must tell Azerbaijan that it will not tolerate its efforts to impose a military solution to this conflict. It must make clear to Armenia that regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be occupied indefinitely and that credible negotiations on a lasting resolution of the conflict must commence immediately once a ceasefire is concluded. Finally, it must stop coddling Ankara and tell both Turkey and Iran to stay out of this conflict. Turkey’s provision of arms to Azerbaijan and bellicose rhetoric encouraging a military solution are irresponsible.”
First, does Biden want to close the door on Baku playing a role providing indirect support for Afghanistan assuming a long-term US presence? Second, does he honestly believe that Armenia has any intention of backing down from occupation or does he intend to offer a US guarantee of the region’s territorial integrity were it to become independent, guarantee that no one will be expelled etc.? Third, how does he define coddling Turkey and why are Turkish arms sales irresponsible, but Israeli arms sales that have had a much more significant impact building out Azerbaijan’s capabilities over the last decade are fine? Finally, why should Iran stay out of the conflict when it’s near its own border and affects its physical security? We have emotional commitments to American leadership playing to a domestic audience, not a policy or systematic view here. It’s a press release, so that makes sense for a campaign. But it means we know little about what the actual thinking in his circle looks like.
Led by Adam Schiff in the House and Bob Menendez in the Senate, Democrats have a pretty clear pro-Armenia policy tilt calling for an end to US security assistance to Azerbaijan chiefly on human rights grounds. Biden is king when it comes to channeling the “values vibe” for foreign policy without telling you anything about what he really believes. It’s clear when you look at his personal preferences that he’s a politician’s politician.
Take troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s on the record supporting a continuing residual presence to “fight terrorism” and the threat of the Islamic State, but never mentions Syria in his thinking and neglects to mention that the Islamic State was never a serious threat to the Homeland. It was, however, a problem for European partners and the region. And while the Islamic State is still active, it lacks any significant territorial base and is hated by other terrorist and Islamist military groups. The Taliban hate ISIS and have even coordinate with the US military to fight them in Afghanistan. He says ‘end forever wars’ but not by bringing back home the soldiers waging them in permanent counter-terror deployments. It’s rhetorical footsie. Effectively, it’s an endorsement of the transitional strategy Obama used to leave Iraq and justify a temporary surge in Afghanistan but without an endgame: the overuse of special operations and forces strained to their logistical, physical, mental, and emotional limits hiding the extent of US action by avoiding too visible a footprint.
We don’t really know where Biden stands on peace talks and, more crucially, enduring troop presences — even if small at just 1-2,000 deployed — entail way more in the way of related assets, air capabilities, intelligence gathering and so on. When you have that many deployed forward, it doesn’t take much for a commander in the field working with a general overseeing a theater to push the envelope and, if they wish, coordinate with congressional allies, the State Department, the National Security Council, and the media to corner the White House. James Baker was right that every White House has an enemy, and it truly is always the Pentagon.
When it comes to Nagorno-Karabakh, however, Biden’s enemy is himself. There doesn’t seem to be much of a sense of what he really wants, particularly since punishing Turkey — a NATO member — is not that easy when countless advisors around him confront the fact that while Turkey has aided and abetted ISIS in Syria in order to make gains on the ground, it’s also a permanent headache for Moscow, got a lot directly committed to the fight now, and willing to go directly after Assad. Trump himself has been victim to his own ineptitude because of the bureaucratic games that setup president after president, and his own drive to destroy much of the national security bureaucracy and apparatus is aimed at undoing the constraints that Biden seems rather to welcome. Close reading suggests he wants to leave all options open because he knows he’ll be stuck with defending himself when things go wrong or he goes with his actual preferences that aren’t palatable on the campaign trail.
Elsewhere, Biden openly backs the opposition removing Lukashenka from power in Belarus. How the hell he intends to start a real dialogue with Moscow on strategic issues when throwing public weight behind the ostensible democratization of Belarus — literally part of the vaunted Union State with Russia — is beyond me, but not necessarily impossible. In his own words, Belarus is a “brutal dictatorship” and if someone in Moscow really is praying for more stable US policy, I’d be careful what you wish for. The Biden campaign hasn’t reacted to Kyrgyzstan overtly, so one assumes it doesn’t matter much to him or his team. That’s rather odd since you’d think that any progress for democracy in Kyrgyzstan is welcome news for Central Asia and on China’s doorstep, but Kyrgyzstan also doesn’t fit neatly into the values-narrative Biden likes to cultivate. It also lacks a relevant lobby among American voters, the same visibility in Washington itself, and suffers from the persistently Eurocentric bias of the imaginary world of post-Cold War order Biden seems to lean on and project far back into history. Per his own vision of the values side of US foreign policy:
“During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.”
You’d hope he realizes the extent to which economic imbalances play a role here, but I won’t bet on it. Symbols in politics matter, but this is not a policy framework or an approach that can be interrogated. If he really wants to make a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’, he’ll have to get comfortable holding Europe’s feet to the fire on trade. His commitments to the transatlantic alliance via NATO and pushing back on Russia, however, are clearly ironclad:
“The Kremlin fears a strong NATO, the most effective political-military alliance in modern history. To counter Russian aggression, we must keep the alliance’s military capabilities sharp while also expanding its capacity to take on nontraditional threats, such as weaponized corruption, disinformation, and cybertheft. We must impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms and stand with Russian civil society, which has bravely stood up time and again against President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic authoritarian system.”
There is no room for negotiation here. His most hawkish advisors and those most plugged into democracy promotion as a foundation of US foreign policy are the ones drafting these pieces and statements put out in his name. If anti-kleptocracy becomes a policy theme — a welcome one at that — that’ll go over like a lead balloon in Moscow. Add to that potential coming budget increases for the State Department and, I’d wager, a big boost for USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy and next thing you know, people with an interest in Eurasia will find ways to spend that money. The real problem for Central Asia, at least, is that Afghanistan was the principle framing for regional US policy. Since Biden has no interest in elaborating a clear place for Afghanistan is US strategy and no one publicly admits that a US presence in Afghanistan is not about counter-terror operations anymore, but rather forward basing capabilities against China as well as a firm veto over deep Chinese involvement developing resources in the country suggests Biden’s mostly on autopilot. That means the Department of Defense and National Security Council are going to set the agenda there.
More worrisome for Eurasia’s energy exporters would be a climate club including the US intending to set minimum prices on carbon and establish trade norms for carbon adjustments. Russia has plenty of problems, but a large enough economy to muddle through adjustments. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan’s primary oil export markets are in Europe and the Mediterranean, while China would ostensibly be brought into any such grouping. Imagine the pain in Turkmenistan if they suddenly had to discount natural gas exports further or else cough up investments to green production and economic activity. European markets alone could force current account adjustments and redesigns of fiscal systems still too reliant on hydrocarbon revenues for their stability. Trump delays that process (stupidly), whereas a president Biden would almost certainly accelerate it. In so doing, I’d expect aid budgets to be redesigned with the energy transition in mind and a lot of the same values-first crowd in Washington who frequently lead on military intervention trying to find ways to increase spending on greening economies. Hard to imagine Moscow trying to play that game in response.
For all the uncertainties wrapped up in good feelings, at least we know that Biden wants to rebuild the capacity of American institutions to actually implement policies when adopted. Unfortunately, inertia is going to carry most of those plans forward given the bureaucracies and personalities involved, not anything resembling a coherent foreign policy vision. Obama retreated from his own NSC in his second term when he realized that the hawks in his administration, including Secretary Clinton in his first term, used it as a vehicle to try and corner him into decisions he didn’t like. Until we get a feel for how much Biden pulls a Sam Hinkie and “trusts the process” over the eyeball test and his own gut, we can’t describe a “Biden” foreign policy. It transparently looks like a camel — a horse built by committee — and eventually someone or some people on the inside will say “**** you and the horse you rode in on.” Until that happens, we won’t know Biden’s preferences.
Love your haters
A reminder on US dollar hegemony:
I don’t expect Biden has a plan to address the structural effects of dollar seignorage and dominance on the middle class and American manufacturing. But he’s probably going to squeeze the dollar for all its worth, even with sanctions restraint, by mobilizing the structural power of US finance if he wins the presidency. Or at least I hope so. Russia’s move into gold and de-dollarization is going to hurt it in the longer-run.
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