America Alone

You may have noticed that the nations of the world are segregated in a pair of distinct groups. One is committed to fighting climate change, and the other is not.

How many nations are in each bloc? Until last week, 196 countries had signed onto the Paris Accord. And two, the United States and Syria, had not done so.

But last week, Syria announced that it is joining the Accord. The count then shifted to 197-to-1.

So what does this mean to the United States? How worrisome is its isolation from the other nations on earth?

It may be comforting to recall that America has taken lonely diplomatic stands in the past. After the First World War, for instance, it declined to join the League of Nations even though President Woodrow Wilson won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to create it. The League mediated several territorial disputes before shutting down and transferring its assets to the United Nations after the Second World War.

But is this example truly relevant to our present day circumstances? At the conclusion of the First World War, none of the European (or Asian) nations was in any position to challenge the United States. Britain, France, and the other Allies were focused on rebuilding their decimated economies. Indeed, there was no global competitor with the relative strength of modern China to challenge the American nation.

And it is perhaps more worrisome that the League did not fulfill its mission to keep the world at peace. Without the United States, it was powerless to stop the rise of fascism and the onset of the Second World War.

So as America bids farewell to Syria and assumes its lonely stance, it may be reasonable to feel a bit worried about the future. After all, even without a global rival like China, the self-imposed isolation of the United States from the global diplomatic community a century ago preceded the rise of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Emperor Hirohito, and Benito Mussolini.

Brexit: A State Of Deadlock

Are you an American who feels worried about the state of deadlock that now reigns throughout your federal government? Here’s a suggestion that might make you feel a little better about your circumstances: just glance across the Atlantic Ocean and observe the level of paralysis that is gripping the government of Great Britain.

Why? Because the British government can’t seem to settle a fundamental issue regarding its own sovereignty. Although the United Kingdom is currently a member of the European Union, its citizens recently voted in a national referendum to secede from the continental bloc.

We thus might have expected British Prime Minister Theresa May to issue a formal statement of secession by triggering Article 50 of the Union treaty. But that has not yet occurred, and last week’s opening arguments of a Court case now raise some doubt that it will ever occur.

Why? Because there is confusion about whether the result of the national referendum is binding under British law. Based on a concept known as the royal prerogative, the Prime Minister is the chief executive of the federal government. She therefore maintains the privilege and the obligation to implement the royal family’s directives under federal law.

And Theresa May has indeed announced her intention to issue a formal statement of succession by March 2017. So why is there any confusion or gridlock regarding this intention?

Well, for starters, the British Parliament might need to ratify the result of the referendum. And even though the members of Parliament are elected by the people of Britain, they may not necessarily decide to ratify a result that generates such risk for the British economy.

In addition, the British royal family has maintained a strictly neutral position on the question of Brexit. So It is difficult to define the Prime Minister’s proposed trigger of Article 50 as a matter of royal prerogative, given that the royal family maintains no public position on the question of Britain’s status within the European Union.

And finally, the Prime Minister is the leader of the political party that controls the most seats in Parliament. So it would be awkward at best, and perhaps a conflict of interest at worst, for Theresa May to initiate succession over the protests of Parliament while leading the political party that controls that very legislature.

Of course, even if the British courts grant Parliament ratification or veto authority over the results of the Brexit referendum, there is no guarantee that the legislators will vote against secession. After all, by doing so, they would be voting against the will of the people, and against the declared intention of their own political leader.

The government of the United Kingdom is in quite a state of confusion, isn’t it? Fortunately, the British courts are expected to settle the issue with a legal judgment relatively soon. And with the American Presidential election about to occur as well, the world’s two oldest democracies may soon be able to put their greatest uncertainties to rest.

Brexit: What Happens Next?

Next week, on June 23, the citizens of Great Britain will vote in a referendum that asks whether their nation should “Remain a Member of the European Union” or should “Leave the European Union.”

So … what will happen if they vote to Remain? And what will happen if they vote to Leave?

The simple truth is that no one really knows what will happen next. The European Union’s agreements do not contemplate the possibility of a member leaving the organization. Thus, they do not specify the impact of such a referendum.

Nevertheless, the New York Times reports that a vote to Leave will trigger a two year period of negotiations with the European Union to agree on a dis-association process. But it also reports that, as a result of such negotiations, Britain might “remain in the European Union’s common market.”

The Common Market, of course, predated the emergence of the Union. Technically, it no longer exists. But today there exists the European Economic Area, as well as the European Free Trade Association. Both organizations include nations that maintain their own national currencies and other aspects of independence from the Union, and yet are indirectly affiliated with the Union.

Furthermore, even nations that have adopted the Euro currency, and that aren’t voting on whether to Leave the Union, maintain aspects of independence from the Union. Several nations, for instance, have received reprieves from the critical budget deficit limitations that support the solvency of the Euro currency.

So what will actually occur as a result of this Brexit vote? Well, if the vote is to Leave the Union, negotiations to revise political and economic relationships will commence. And if the vote is to Remain in the Union, such negotiations — which routinely occur among all Union members — will continue.

Thus, the referendum is simply an opinion poll that might establish a transitory sense of direction to such negotiations, until some future event modifies that direction. In other words, although the vote represents an important barometer of British opinion at the current time, it will hardly settle the question of the future of the European Project.

The Duality Of Donald Trump

As we move into 2016 and approach the U.S. Presidential election’s primary and caucus season, the indomitable Donald Trump remains the most surprising candidate of all.

Why is he so surprising? It’s not because he happens to be the most engaging and entertaining candidate in the race. And it’s not because he happens to be the most bellicose and confrontational candidate in the race. It’s because he is simultaneously engaging and yet bellicose, entertaining and yet confrontational.

How can any one, let alone a billionaire businessman and U.S. Presidential candidate, exude both types of personality qualities simultaneously? Is it possible that he is truly a sympathetic figure, but that he has adopted a merciless persona for political purposes? Or vice versa?

The truth is that Trump has always exhibited both types of qualities in his public behavior. In fact, one can look back over the decades of his public career and find numerous periods of time when Trump has behaved in an extremely admirable manner in certain respects, and in an extremely shocking manner in other respects.

Consider the Wollman Rink in New York City’s Central Park, for instance. From the late 1940s through the 1970s, it hosted numerous musical and theatrical events for the general public each summer, and ice skating activities each winter. The city’s administration shut it temporarily for repairs and renovations in 1980, but when it proved incapable of completing the restoration project after six years of effort, Trump stepped in and completed it in a mere three months.

Pretty impressive, eh? But now let’s consider the architectural loss of the Bonwit Teller edifice. In 1980, the same year that the Wollman Rink closed for repairs, Trump purchased the Art Deco flagship building of the Bonwit Teller department store chain and demolished it to clear room for his eponymous 5th Avenue tower. Although he initially promised to preserve the building’s classic exterior wall sculptures for donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he then instructed his construction crew to jackhammer the art work to rubble.

How can someone work to preserve one Big Apple landmark while destroying another? Some critics claim that, in both cases, he was acting to further his own private interests. After all, Trump derives a financial benefit by splashing his name in bright red text in the upper left corner of the Wollman Rink’s web site. And the sudden destruction of the Bonwit Teller sculptures permitted him to construct his Tower more quickly and efficiently.

But it’s unfair to simply conclude that Trump’s Wollman and New York Tower projects were not motivated at all by the public interest. After all, Central Park in 1986 was a far more dangerous and uninviting place than it is today. Trump had no way of knowing that, in one generation, the Park itself (and its facilities, including the Wollman Rink) would evolve from a troubled public resource in a struggling city to a crown jewel in a wealthy global metropolis.

And likewise, from its initial opening during the 1980s, Trump Tower has always maintained its signature waterfall atrium plaza as a public meeting space. Its public use clearly prevents its rental to a private restaurant tenant that could easily pay significant rents for the location.

So now that we’re focused on the U.S. Presidential election campaigns, if you find yourself marveling at Trump’s dual personas and wondering whether one is genuine and the other is a mere act, you can put such suspicions aside. In reality, there has always been a duality to the man’s personality, and it is likely to influence his future behavior.

Is Trust Necessary?

Why was it so difficult for the members of the European Union to reach an agreement over the fiscal bail-out of Greece? If you listen to European politicians, the challenge was simply a matter of trust.

According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “”the most important currency has been lost and that is trust.” Likewise, a Bloomberg Business article reported that “Riled by six months of personal attacks and contradictory messages from Athens, euro-area policy makers are forcing (Greek Prime Minister) Tsipras to overcome the credibility gap they said was a key hurdle to more loans. They’re no longer willing to take him at his word.”

But there are always two sides to every dispute. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, for instance, believes that the German negotiating stance was “a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.” He asks, “Who will ever trust Germany’s intentions after this?”

An editorial in the British news organization The Independent echoed Krugman’s argument, adding that “Germany (has) emerged as the fiscal hardliner, demanding cast-iron guarantees that Athens would observe stringent austerity measures.”

This lack of trust on both sides appears to have generated a terrible amount of ill will, with the New York Times publishing editorials about Germany’s “destructive anger” and the British news organization The Daily Mail writing about Greeks who compare Germany’s current behavior to its brutal Nazi history. So how can this challenging dearth of trust be overcome?

The answer to that question might be found in another grueling set of negotiations that recently concluded between the United States and Iran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is taking the position that trust is unnecessary and cannot be relied on to enforce negotiated agreements.

Kerry explains, “There’s nothing built on trust. You don’t have to trust the people you’re dealing with, you have to have a mechanism put in place whereby you know exactly what you’re getting and you know exactly what they’re doing.” He adds, “You don’t trust. It’s not based on trust. It’s based on verification.”

Does Secretary Kerry’s Trust / Verification paradigm sound familiar to you? It’s precisely the language that was used by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to explain their approach to negotiating nuclear arms treaties. As illustrated by a classic YouTube video clip, this approach allowed the leaders of America and the Soviet Union — mortal enemy superpowers — to establish a warm personal relationship while negotiating critical treaties to avoid global destruction.

Would it be possible for European leaders, sunk deeply in a morass of bitter rancor generated by mistrust, to simply stop worrying about trust and focus on verification activities instead? Given the dreadful state of the relationships between these leaders, it can’t possibly hurt for them to try a different approach.

Obama’s Truman Moment

So just how low can America’s political leaders sink into acrimonious gridlock? Indeed, we might soon find out. After all, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner is about to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the floor of the United States Capitol to condemn President Obama’s policy towards Iran.

Apparently, Boehner not only failed to ask for the President’s feedback before inviting the Prime Minister to give his speech, he didn’t even bother to tell the President that he was extending the invitation. Commentators have said that the situation “has no precedent in American history,” noting that Congressional leaders have always consulted with Presidents before inviting outsiders to speak on the floor of the Capitol.

Well, perhaps not quite always. During at least one prior time in American history, a very similar dispute erupted between the Congress and the President. That situation also involved a hostile Congress that invited an outsider to criticize Presidential policies on the floor of the Capitol building.

In the midst of the Korean War, in 1951, President Truman relieved the famous General Douglas MacArthur of all command duties and replaced him with the far lesser known Matthew Ridgway. MacArthur was a legendary war hero in both the first and second world wars, and had masterminded a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon that temporarily swung the momentum of the Korean War in favor of the United Nations forces.

Nevertheless, MacArthur’s behavior during the Korean War was marked by rashly inappropriate decisions and, at times, outright insubordination towards President Truman. The General foolishly pursued the North Korean Army to its border with China, an aggressive action that brought the Chinese army into direct and catastrophic conflict with American forces. And MacArthur repeatedly complained, in a public manner, that the President would not permit him to attack Chinese soil or to deploy nuclear weapons.

When Truman decided to relieve MacArthur, the political prospects of his Democratic Party were not particularly bright, and many politicians were openly discussing the possibility that MacArthur might run for President as a Republican candidate. Upon MacArthur’s dismissal from duty, Congressional leaders invited the General to speak on the floor of the U.S. Capitol as a political rebuke to Truman.

So how did that speech work out for MacArthur? And what was its outcome for Truman?

In the short term, MacArthur’s popularity soared even higher, and Truman’s sunk to new lows. The General gave a brilliant speech to Congress, one that is now remembered for its immortal line “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” He was also honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City, and he began presenting his political views at venues across the nation.

Truman, meanwhile, began a political death spiral. Declining to run for re-election, he retired from office in early 1953 and was initially considered one of the most unpopular and unsuccessful presidents in American history. Sure enough, his successor was a Republican candidate who swept into office as a military war hero who commanded Allied armies during the Second World War.

But the President who succeeded Truman was General Dwight Eisenhower, who masterminded America’s victory against Nazi Germany, and not MacArthur, who led the Pacific war against Imperial Japan. So what happened to MacArthur’s nascent political career? Apparently, as American citizens learned more about his views, they became less enthusiastic about electing him President.

And over the ensuing decades, Harry Truman’s reputation has risen among both Presidential historians and the American public. He is now considered to be one of the most successful Presidents in the history of the United States, a leader who was willing to make tremendously unpopular decisions that were in the long term interests of the nation.

Today, of course, there’s no way to know whether the contemporary struggles of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will evolve in the same manner as the twentieth century battles of President Truman and General MacArthur. Modern times are very different, and thus modern outcomes may differ as well.

Nevertheless, if history is any guide to the future, we may eventually decide that President Obama’s decisions are downright Trumanesque. And Netanyahu? As MacArthur might say, he may, quite simply, fade away.