Navigating the New Abnormal
Posted by hkarner - 5. Februar 2017
Absolutely essential reading! (hfk)
Source: Project Syndicate
Slawomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His books include The End of Poverty, Common Wealth, and, most recently, The Age of Sustainable
The Trump administration lacks both a global strategy and anyone who could formulate and implement one. And unless anti-populists in general – and the center left, in particular – face up to some hard realities, the menace of a rogue US will only grow.
The Populist Backlash
SS: You’ve written that Brexit and Trump are the same phenomenon. Do you think the populist wave that lifted both will spread further?
JS: I think societies everywhere are very divided. Whether it’s 51-49 or 49-51, we are not seeing landslide wins for populism, but rather a reflection of deep social divisions. And, yes, I think we’re going to see more of this, because there are so many anxieties that we don’t seem able to overcome.
Even the foundations of foreign policy are giving way. The Middle East crises are the result of America’s failure and fading global power, which are part of the social anguish many voters feel. Likewise, Brexit reflects a collapse in belief in the postwar order in Western Europe, which was forged during the Cold War but has now basically disintegrated.
SS: You attribute populism to four factors: rising nationalism, the weakening of American foreign policy, the crisis of the center left, and the refugee crisis. Yet you’re an economist. So what about economics? JS: Of all of the factors at play in today’s political upheavals, I don’t think economics is the main one. That’s illustrated by one important data point: Scandinavia. All of the Scandinavian countries, and their neighbors in northern Europe, have right-wing populist parties, with some approaching power. And yet you can’t do better than these countries in terms of living standards, social justice, and opportunity. So, if northern European countries, including the star performers of Scandinavia, are facing a populist backlash, it is hard to blame economic causes.
Even the Netherlands – affluent, peaceful, prosperous, educated – is now confronting a right-wing populist surge. Yes, massive inequality, erosion of public services, and political corruption are in some sense part of the local context in the United States; yet in northern Europe, these factors are largely absent.
For me, the most pertinent fact is that populist Scandinavians are calling for a social-democratic order, but one for Danes or Swedes or Norwegians alone. They like their society; they just don’t want newcomers. So, it’s explicitly anti-migrant – essentially a demographic and cultural reflex.
SS: Maybe their expectations are higher?
JS: No, looking from the Netherlands and to the north, I think people really like their social order – again, I don’t think we know how to make economies work better than those countries do. What many of their people apparently don’t like is Muslims living in their country. They don’t want mosques in their neighborhoods. That’s not true of everybody, of course, but that’s what the backlash reflects. And, of course, the terrible recent mosque attack in Quebec City shows the same phenomenon in another mostly tolerant society on the other side of the Atlantic.
Mainstream politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel say: We’re rich, let’s be generous. But it doesn’t resonate politically, because it doesn’t answer people’s fundamental questions: What do you mean by “generous”? How many millions of people will be allowed to enter? Is there any limit or is the generosity open ended? Are we to eliminate national borders altogether to allow in whoever wants to come?
In my view, a borderless world is plainly unrealistic. If people were told that they could move, no questions asked, probably a billion would shift around the planet within five years, with many coming to Europe or the US. No society would tolerate even a fraction of that flow. Any politician who says, “Let’s be generous,” without saying, “We’re not going to throw the doors wide open,” will lose. So, I think that’s where the left is tongue-tied, because it sounds chauvinistic to say we need a limit on migration. It would be better to say, “We must help the refugees; they are fleeing for their lives. But, yes, we must also step up efforts to end the Syrian war, and thereby enable the refugees to return to their homeland once the fires are put out.”
Hard Demographic Truths
SS: Many argue that immigrants are an economic boon, and that we Europeans need them because of our aging societies.
JS: I think there are several problems with that argument. One is that almost any major economic event like a large-scale migration has far-reaching distributional consequences. So, when people say that we’ll be better off, who’s “we”? Many lower-skilled, working-class, less-educated people certainly would not be made better off by open immigration. That’s not an illusion, just basic economics. New York City’s low-wage, low-cost service sector benefits me, a professional with a good income and economic security. But why should anyone employed in that sector and just trying to hold on – worried about paying the rent, keeping the utilities turned on, finding affordable childcare – welcome direct competition from migrants. They won’t. And as migrants do arrive, the fiscal system must ensure that the working class doesn’t bear the brunt of the adjustment.
SS: Yet they will come. Around Europe and the West, there are at least a billion hungry people. They will come. We’re deluding ourselves if we think we can stick to borders.
JS: I don’t believe it’s that simple. I think the trafficked or undocumented migrants coming into the US are able to come and stay mostly because a lot of people in the US make a lot of money employing them at very low wages. There are reportedly 11 million undocumented Mexican workers in the US. Why do people hire them? Those who make the choice don’t care about the consequences for anyone else. That’s the arrogance of the professional or business class in the US. They don’t think about the consequences for America’s lesser-skilled workers, who compete with the migrants. If such migrants do come, the tax-and-benefit system of the federal government and the states should help those who have been hit.
SS: But is it stoppable?
JS: Yes, borders can and should be policed. Of course, refugees fleeing for their lives must be helped. That’s not only basic human decency; it’s also international law. But refugees and economic migrants are two different matters. No rich country is under the obligation to open its doors to all of the economic migrants that would come. That is simply impossible. And please note that regulating borders is a different question from the mass deportation of the millions of people who are already in the US for years without legal permission. A mass deportation would be hugely painful and disruptive to millions of lives.
As for refugees, the most important thing to do is to stop the cruel, useless, and deeply misguided wars that have triggered the mass movements of refugees. The US bears the main responsibility for the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria that have been the main cause of the mass refugee movements of recent years. Those were wars of choice (mainly of attempted regime change) and should never have occurred. Yet now the US shirks all responsibility for even a single refugee. Trump’s ban on refugees is disgusting and dangerous.
Yet when we consider economic migrants, it’s essential to note the long-term, slow-moving demographic aspect to what has happened to Europe and to the US. In 1950, Europe had more people than all of Africa and the Middle East combined. Today, it’s completely the reverse: the European Union has 500 million people, while Sub-Saharan Africa has a billion, the Middle East has hundreds of millions of people, and North Africa probably has 150 million or more.
Likewise, if you look at the US population compared to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America, we have a similar, if less dramatic shift over a 75-year period. So, with regard to economic migration, what we’re observing in the West is fundamentally a demographic phenomenon. For some people, the changing racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic character of our societies is fine; for others, it’s profoundly unsettling. The divide is roughly half and half.
SS: You find this trend troubling as well.
JS: Africa’s demographic trajectory is deeply worrisome because it is built on an extremely high fertility rate that will hinder its own sustainable development. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the average fertility rate remains more than five children per woman, and the resulting population trajectory is roughly a quadrupling of the continent’s population by the end of this century. That means about four billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to a European population that might be around 500 million at the end of the century. One can only imagine what kind of pressures – perhaps completely irresistible – this would generate. And there’s almost no public discussion about it, because you can see how incredibly sensitive this topic is. It can be misconstrued as racist to talk about it, so the left doesn’t, religious groups won’t, and politicians – facing an issue that will ripen only long after they’re out of power – steer clear. Yet the first point is that Africa’s own economic, social, and environmental health depend on achieving a rapid and voluntary reduction of fertility rates, mainly by enabling Africa’s girls and boys to remain in school.
SS: So, because this is extremely sensitive politically, we’re trapped?
JS: There are two points. One is to recognize that these demographic changes are in nobody’s interest, and that they really should be a matter of direct policy attention. I say that at the risk of serious misunderstanding. But the bottom line is that Africa will never achieve successful development if it reaches four billion people at the end of this century. That trajectory would lead to unbearable environmental stress, hunger, war, water depletion, and destruction of remaining biodiversity. It would be a disaster first and foremost for Africa.
But it’s possible to promote a rapid demographic change by simple and utterly decent means. Most important, helping to keep girls in school through secondary school, thereby promoting an education revolution, would reduce the fertility rate within a generation – probably to below three, and possibly to below two, and all in a wholly voluntary manner. I raise this point all the time with African and European leaders, but there’s a great difficulty and reluctance to grapple now with a reality that’s 20 or 40 or 60 years ahead.
SS: And the second point?
JS: Trump’s announcement that he would construct a wall on the Mexican border horrified right-thinking Americans. It sounds so vulgar, like building the Berlin Wall. But to half the country, it made sense. Don’t countries have borders, and don’t you police borders? And that’s where I return to my critique of the center left. Would a fence or a wall work? To a large extent, yes, it would, actually. But the left doesn’t have a language that acknowledges the need for borders and the need to police them. I’m not in favor of a wall, per se, but I am in favor of regulated borders, not an open door to unregulated migration. All high-income countries need borders. Borders do not mean closed doors or bans (like Trump’s), least of all religiously based bans, which are deeply offensive and self-defeating. But borders do mean enforcement of limits to migration.
SS: And the left should say that? We need borders?
JS: Of course. And we should police them. We should have migration, because diversity is good; but we should not have open doors, because we can’t afford it, and we don’t want it. I think the most basic idea that needs to be worked out is managed migration, whereby people arrive legally at a certain rate that is proportionate to the country’s size and pace of demographic change.
SS: So who and how many should be welcome? Should the poorest receive priority, or should it be the best educated, the youngest, refugees? Perhaps those who are most culturally similar?
JS: The first distinction is refugees and non-refugees. We have international law on refugees, based on the principle of non-refoulement: you can’t return refugees to a place where they are likely to be persecuted. A refugee is someone who is fleeing persecution, and the first thing you want to do to resolve a refugee crisis is to stop the underlying cause. Europe has had a long debate over the last three years about Syrian refugees, but it has had no debate at all about the Syrian war, because Europe has no foreign policy and no capacity to address foreign-policy issues collectively.
Soberly into Syria
SS: So what is your analysis of the Syrian war?
JS: In my opinion, it is a US-Saudi-Turkish war of regime change that is essentially stupid and against international law. The reason we have a refugee crisis is not because of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but because the US, the Saudis, and the Turks said in 2011 that Assad should be overthrown. It was a stupid idea – just as stupid as the idea of overthrowing Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011 and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003.
If I were a European politician, I would tell the US to stop focusing on violent US-led regime change, because that approach is flooding Europe with refugees and wreaking political havoc. But I would also reject the prevailing view that Europe needs to integrate its refugees for the long term. I think the right answer is to keep refugees safe, fed, in school, and healthy, and prepare them to return home to Syria as soon as possible. The mainstream argument in the US and Europe is that it’s not safe for refugees to return, because of the dictator. In my view, it’s not safe because of America’s pretentions that it gets to decide which governments rule in which parts of the world. We’re living out the disaster of that American fantasy again. Syria could be safe for Syrians, especially with the responsible unanimous backing of the UN Security Council.
SS: But Assad is a real danger.
JS: No, nothing like the danger of a continued proxy war in Syria and the open space for the Islamic State. Assad wasn’t such a danger from 2000 to 2010. Syria was a normal country with autocratic rule. It wasn’t a global humanitarian disaster. It became a disaster in the spring of 2011, and especially on August 18, 2011, when Barack Obama said that Assad must go. That was Obama’s worst foreign-policy blunder, and we’re still living with the consequences. Why would a US president say that another country’s president must go? The idea that the US can choose who should lead other countries has been a complete failure.
SS: So is Syria Obama’s Iraq?
JS: Yes, but it’s not seen that way, because we live in a world of illusions. The illusion here is that Obama failed because he didn’t enforce his “line in the sand,” he didn’t do more or respond more aggressively. In fact, Obama signed executive orders – secret, but released in the media – directing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to overthrow the Assad regime. The US pumped in a tremendous amount of weapons. The Saudis, Qataris, and Turks sent even more, and also sent in jihadists.
SS: Why were they interested in overthrowing Assad?
JS: Because he’s an ally of Russia and Iran, and because they thought that they could do it in 30 days. This was a geopolitical game, and it was both shockingly naïve and exceptionally arrogant. Obama, who’s a handwringer in general, said, “Okay, we’ll do this, but we won’t do that. We’ll do just a little bit, but we’ll let the Saudis, Turks, and Qataris take the lead.” But half a war is not half a disaster. We needed no war.
SS: What was the fight in Aleppo about?
JS: Assad and Russia were trying to root out the anti-Assad rebels. Who are these rebels? Who is funding and arming them? The CIA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. So if we were to turn back the clock, Aleppo didn’t have to be destroyed. The reason it was destroyed is that the so-called US-led coalition is funding an anti-government rebellion in another country. The last time I checked the UN Charter – which is pretty frequently, actually – this behavior is completely prohibited under international law.
SS: So this brings us back to Europe’s refugee issue and the question of why the refugees are fleeing.
JS: Name one European leader who has asked that question. The whole debate in Europe focuses on whether to absorb the refugees or keep them in Turkey. Nobody asks the most basic question: why is this war raging in the first place?
Trump and the West
SS: So now we have Trump. Is he an isolationist?
JS: No, he’s not a standard isolationist. I think American foreign policy is increasingly erratic and very dangerous, and I think it will become more so under Trump. I don’t predict anything except high variance.
SS: Do you think he will withdraw from Eastern Europe? Russia’s ambitions haven’t changed.
JS: I don’t quite agree with that.
SS: Then why did Russia invade Ukraine, annex Crimea, and back the separatists in Donbas?
JS: I think that the US made a huge mistake in trying to flip Ukraine to NATO.
SS: Ukrainians wanted to join NATO.
JS: I know, but the US should say: “No way.”
JS: Because that’s geopolitics.
SS: They wanted to liberate themselves from Russia. If that’s their will, isn’t it their right?
JS: Sometimes actions that you truly believe are defensive are viewed on the other side as offensive. I believe that we lost a historic opportunity in 1991. I recall my first days of engagement with Poland and Russia (then still the Soviet Union), and I think of Mikhail Gorbachev’s idea for a zone of peace extending from Rotterdam to Vladivostok. One could call that idea naïve; I call it setting a target that we should have aimed at.
Instead, after 1991, US neoconservatives viewed the Soviet Union’s collapse as America’s victory. So it was America’s job to pick up the pieces, and for a while I was in agreement. I definitely supported Poland joining NATO, along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, which I thought was justified in terms of basic geopolitics and security. When NATO expanded to the Baltic countries, however, I started to have misgivings: the closer NATO got to Russia’s own borders, the more the geopolitical West was creating unnecessary tripwires.
SS: What about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine surrendered its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from the US, China, Britain, and Russia?
JS: I think the big mistake really came with NATO’s approach to Georgia and Ukraine. At a fundamental level, Russia wants a security buffer. The Soviet Union’s brutal domination of Eastern Europe for four decades after World War II was not part of a plot to control the world; it was a strategy intended to prevent Germany from invading again. So my sense is that in 2008, the prospect of NATO positioned at Russia’s borders inside Georgia and Ukraine was the last straw for the Russian security state.
SS: Neither country was actually invited to join NATO. The Alliance sent an unclear message, and, where Russia is concerned, unclear messages from the West often create higher risks.
JS: The US was pressing – there were parties in the US that were pushing hard – to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to the US and gave a speech in New York, which I happened to attend, in which he envisaged NATO membership, trumpeted Georgia’s European identity, and even claimed that his country sits at the heart of Europe. Most of the attendees applauded loudly. “We’re with you,” they declared. I thought all of this was a dangerous geopolitical fantasy; a couple of months after he gave that speech, Russia’s invasion of his country proved that it was.
SS: What should these countries do? Must they be subordinate to Russia?
JS: Imagine that Mexico’s leaders, having decided that Trump poses a grave threat to their country’s security, formed a military alliance with China. As far as I’m concerned, it would be their choice to make. But US policymakers – Republicans and Democrats alike – wouldn’t see it that way. I don’t know what would happen the next day, but I wouldn’t want to be in Mexico City, or perhaps anywhere in the world (which would all be threatened). This is reality. And it’s why a sensible US leader would say to the Ukrainians: we care for you, we love you, but we don’t want you in NATO, because we don’t want to provoke a conflict with the major power on your border.
SS: Let’s look at the situation today. Ukraine is not in NATO; Poland and the Baltic countries are. And I’m interested in whether NATO will be there for us or not.
JS: My guess is that it will be, and I pray that Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t put my guess to the test. If Putin were to send troops into a Baltic state, I believe we’d have a war that could end the world.
SS: Don’t you think Trump would tolerate incursions by Russia?
JS: Russian incursions in Europe would be a disaster of possibly world-ending dimensions. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But, to answer your question, I don’t see there being much of an out for Trump, given the way the American political system works, the way our state works.
SS: They could try to find a solution with Russia.
JS: I don’t think that’s the issue. If there were an invasion of a NATO state, I would pray for our very survival.
SS: Little green men speaking Russian could appear in Estonia, like they did in Crimea three years ago. They could work under the radar of Article Five.
JS: If that happens, we’ve got a world-class disaster.
SS: America would react?
SS: You’re sure of it?
SS: What’s your prediction about Trump’s role here?
JS: What I see are a couple of instincts that are at odds with each other. One instinct is that we should have good relations with Putin. I think that that’s basically a good idea. He says we shouldn’t have been in these wars in the Middle East. I agree with that, too. My view is that we should be working with Putin in Syria to end the war there. My goal isn’t to leave Assad in power, but I think that would be the outcome of halting the effort to overthrow him, which would bring peace.
But Trump also says that he’s going to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, which in my view is ignorant and belligerent, and, if he follows through, could lead to terrible trouble. He may try to find a pretext or a substantive reason to cancel the deal. And if you look at Trump’s appointments, his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, gets very negative reactions in the Muslim world. The incoming CIA director, Michael Pompeo, is reportedly a similarly crude Islamophobe, whose anti-Iranian stance is a kind of ignorant reflex.
No one should forget that the agency Pompeo will lead overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953, installing a police state that lasted until 1979. Then the US backed Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, and imposed sanctions that have lasted for almost 30 years. Attacking Iran has become a blind habit of US leaders.
SS: I gather you don’t think Trump has a grand geopolitical strategy.
JS: He’s a mass of contradictions and crudeness. One minute, he says the US shouldn’t have war in the Middle East; the next, he wants to escalate tensions with Iran. The US needs to pull back from the world, he says, but it also needs to build up its military and possibly have a trade war (or even a real war) with China. This is all a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, not a strategy. And there are no statesmen on his team who could carry one out. It is all very dangerous indeed.
Reconstructing American Politics
SS: What does that say about the state of American democracy?
JS: The US is witnessing a serious failure of its institutions. Incoherent foreign policy is a symptom of this. Public trust in government is at an all-time low, while distrust of all political figures is extraordinarily high. The two major parties exist only to finance campaigns. Many elite Americans just want to make money, and seem ready to give up democracy for tax cuts. We’re definitely in uncharted waters.
SS: Do you think American civil society can stop Trump if he makes crazy moves?
JS: On some things, yes. And perhaps a few top Republicans will tell Trump that he is not a tyrant. But we also need a revolution in politics. Representation has broken down. Americans believe – correctly, more often than not – that their congressmen serve their donors’ interests, not those of their constituents. And we have this extremely dangerous plebiscitary kind of presidentialism. If I could rewrite constitutions, I would replace presidentialism everywhere with a parliamentary system. If a country is lucky enough to have a traditional and respected constitutional monarch to promote the spirit of unity, even better.
SS: So you want party rule?
JS: Yes. I want government with policies, with politics, with day-to-day accountability to the people’s elected representatives. That seems preferable to a system in which most of the electorate must agonize for four years over whether the head of government is crazy.
SS: At the same time, parties everywhere are totally demoralized and people don’t want to join them.
JS: The parties I most admire are the social-democratic parties, and they’re disappearing in most places, because their sociological base, which was trade unionism, has disappeared. We really need to reconstitute politics on a new sociological base that makes sense, given how people live, what young people do, how they earn their incomes, and so forth. So politics needs to be remade, I believe, through mass participation.
SS: People don’t want to participate.
JS: I believe they do. That’s what we’re going to find out.