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In Russia, a First Official Tribute to Boris Nemtsov

NIZHNY NOVGOROD—Sometimes it is good to be wrong. For the friends of Russia’s slain opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov—certainly including the author of this blog—it was difficult to believe that he could be commemorated on an official level while the current regime remains in power. Indeed, several public initiatives calling for a memorial to him in Moscow have been bluntly rejected by the authorities, who also continue to allow the ravaging of the unofficial “people’s memorial” on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge where the opposition leader was killed in February 2015.

The EU Cozies with Iran at Its Peril

Since last summer’s nuclear deal, Iran has been pushing a full court press to be treated as a legitimate member of the international community. Its behavior suggests otherwise. Since the accord, Tehran has stepped up support to the Assad regime in Syria, persisted in testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, and continued human rights abuses within its borders. Nevertheless, on October 25, the European Parliament passed a resolution affirming its desire to normalize political and economic ties with Iran.

A New Way of Looking at China

“I continue to believe that a constructive US-China relationship benefits our two peoples and benefits the entire globe,” said President Obama before beginning his meeting with Xi Jinping in Lima on Saturday. “And the structure and framework of cooperation, the frequent meetings and consultations that we’ve established I think have been extremely productive.” 

The meeting in the Peruvian capital with his Chinese counterpart was undoubtedly the final one of his term.

Obama, although expressing concerns, could nonetheless not stop talking about cooperation between his country and Xi’s. Yet after so many opportunities to exchange views—this was the ninth meeting of the two since Xi became the Communist Party’s general secretary in November 2012—China’s behavior has deteriorated, almost across the board. 

An Uncertain New Era Begins

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States feels to some like the end of the world. It’s not. It’s the beginning of a new era. And it’s time to take some deep yoga breaths. Uncertainty always triggers anxiety, but it’s important for the anxious not to catastrophize.

“Catastrophizing relies on an overestimation of the odds of a bad outcome as well as an underestimation of your ability to cope with it should it befall you.” Those are some serious words of wisdom right there, not just for politics, but for life in general. They were written by Dr. Edmund Bourne in his book, Coping With Anxiety.

Nobody really has a clue what’s going to happen next, including Donald Trump and his team. The polling and forecasting industry has been gut-punched. Even the GOP thought he would lose. I wouldn’t dare predict anything specific in public right now. The odds that I’d be wrong approach 100 percent. I’m not even making any private predictions in my own head. Radical uncertainty makes a lot of people uneasy, but look on the bright side. At least the next couple of years will be interesting. 

The first step to calming down at least a little is understanding what actually happened and why. Trump supporters chose him over Hillary Clinton and his Republican establishment opponents because they’re fed-up with business-as-usual and the Washington “swamp.” Who isn’t fed up with Washington at this point? If Trump had been less divisive and more even-tempered, he probably would have won in a landslide.

And let’s dispense, please, with the notion that everybody who voted for Trump is a deplorable racist. Some of them are. No question about it. But a black man named Tim Scott was just elected senator in a state-wide race in South Carolina, and he’s a Republican. The majority of voters in South Carolina voted for Donald Trump and a black man on the same ballot.

Virtually nobody voted for Trump because they want the apocalypse. They took a gamble on an outsider because they want things to get better. Aside from the worst people on the fringes like white supremacist David Duke, they aren’t yearning for a political nightmare. If everyday voters find themselves in a political nightmare anyway, they will vote very differently next time. They’ll start by bringing reinforcements two years from now and will give Trump his walking papers in four years.

If the truly worst case scenario materializes—if Trump tries to govern like an outright dictator—Congress can and will remove him from power. The thing about worst-case scenarios, though, is that they rarely actually happen. They are the worst out of a range of possibilities. If worst-case scenarios were always the most likely to come true, we’d be living in a hellscape like The Walking Dead.

Sure, there is plenty to worry about. Donald Trump is a reality TV star with no government or military experience whatsoever. He has rattled nerves and induced near-panic attacks with the proposal on his website for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” his promise to deport eleven million people, peddling one conspiracy theory after another, acting like an Internet troll on Twitter and floating alt-right enabler Steve Bannon as his top advisor. American allies from Europe to East Asia are breathing into paper bags right now after he trash-talked NATO, threatened to pull out of trade deals, and said he wants to renegotiate defense agreements in the Pacific Rim.

But Trump has moderated his tone and his policy proposals substantially. The worst-case scenario is off the table already, and he hasn’t even started yet.

Outgoing President Barack Obama reassured Americans and the world at a press conference on Monday that President-elect Trump is committed to NATO. “He’s going to be the next president,” he added, “and regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office. This office has a way of waking you up.”

According to Trump surrogate and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Muslim ban has evaporated. Trump himself says he will keep the good parts of Obamacare so that people with pre-existing conditions can still get health insurance. He also says he wants to deport two-to-three million people rather than eleven million. For a sense of perspective, the Obama administration deported two million.

He ran the most bombastic political campaign most of us have ever seen, but his tone has been much better, and more presidential, since the campaign ended, and he looked straight into the camera and told his most cretinous supporters who have been acting like bigoted bullies to stop it.

Trump has been yelling “Drain the swamp!” on the campaign trail, and even some Democratic voters who would rather chew off their own legs than vote for him felt a private thrill when he said that. Almost everybody hates the Washington swamp, including lots of people who live there. Of all American institutions, Congress has the lowest approval rating, less than 10 percent, and the military has the highest at 73 percent. In the Middle East and Latin America, numbers like these would portend a military coup. But we don’t live in the Middle East or Latin America. We live here. So instead of a military coup, we got Donald Trump.

Count your blessings.

You know what else, though? The swamp has a role. The swamp is bipartisan, but it acts as a conservative anchor. It prevents a political revolution from hurtling the country off the rails into an abyss. As President Obama put it at his press conference this week, “The federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat. It’s an ocean liner.” So if the next four years turn out to be as terrible as many fear, the swamp might actually save us.

Donald Trump isn’t actually going to drain it. He is not going to purge tens of thousands of people like Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did earlier this year after a botched military coup. He will not replace everybody in government with his real estate and casino friends. I am confident of that much, at least. That would be preposterous even by the standards of the last 15 months. He is hiring one establishment pol after another because, with a handful of exceptions, there’s no one else he can hire.

“Modern governing is immensely complicated,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “There is an old chestnut that says politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year that's an understatement. Donald Trump campaigned in tweets and he will govern in risk assessments and annotated omnibus appropriations bills.”

The United States—and the world—has been through much worse than anything Donald Trump is going to throw at us. The incoming era may indeed turn out to be terrible, but if we all sat down and wrote out four or eight years of specific predictions, every single one of us would be wrong. And if we’re wrong about almost everything, that includes most of the scary stuff.

Taiwan's Hung Hsiu-chu Freelances with China's Xi on 'One China'

On the first of this month, Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping met his counterpart from Taiwan’s Kuomintang, Hung Hsiu-chu, in Beijing. It was the first time the two spoke to one another as heads of their respective political parties.

The event highlights the continuing failure of Beijing, for all its evident power, to have its way with Taiwan. 

During their meeting, both Xi and Hung expressed full support for the so-called 1992 Consensus, an understanding that there is only one China, that Taiwan is a part of that country, and that Beijing and Taiwan have their own interpretations of the situation.

The Communist Party believes Beijing is the sole legitimate government of that “one China,” while the KMT, as the Kuomintang is commonly known, maintains Taipei is.

Vladimir Putin’s Best Week Ever

Last week, while much of the world was focused on the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US elections, things in Europe and Eurasia took an ominous turn. Even leaving aside the Trump victory, which the Kremlin seems to view with both concern at Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, and glee at his pro-Russia statements, Vladimir Putin had a terrific week.

Estonia, Bulgaria, and Moldova, all underwent political changes that look to be good news for Moscow, while the Kremlin’s influence in international policing matters also got a major boost.

Interpol

China’s Meddling Sparks Hong Kong Protests

Residents of Hong Kong spilled out into the streets Sunday in two separate demonstrations—one of them violent—to protest an impending ruling further restricting the city’s autonomy.

The incidents highlight Beijing’s increasingly hardline and inept handling of Hong Kong, one of China’s Special Administrative Regions.

Estimates vary, but on Sunday afternoon between 8,000 and 13,000 residents marched from the Wanchai to Central districts to protest the anticipated interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. An unruly group of perhaps 4,000 gathered in front of Beijing’s Liaison Office in the Sai Wan district that evening.

American Brexit

Global markets plunged after learning that Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.

Few saw it coming, and the polling industry will have to spend some time in the wilderness for a while, but the market response shouldn’t shock anyone. It’s exactly what happened after the Brexit vote, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” Trump said on Twitter in August. “Brexist times five,” he said at rallies last month.

It’s not hard to understand why British voters gave a middle finger to the establishment in Brussels, nor is it hard to understand why Americans are furious at the political establishment on this side of the Atlantic. There are almost as many reasons for both as there are voters.

Much of the world is in a panic, though, because what happens in America doesn’t stay in America. The United States is the world’s only superpower, and Donald Trump has threatened not only to kick over the garbage cans in Washington, but to kick over the entire global order that has been built since we won World War II. In addition to his promises to overturn American trade agreements, he has cozied up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, called NATO “obsolete” and threatened to retract the security umbrella that protects our allies as far away as Japan and South Korea.

It’s one thing to rail against the American establishment and another thing entirely to rail against the parts of the international establishment built and maintained by America. The most powerful person on earth can’t do that sort of thing without provoking an overwhelming reaction.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, said the election is a “huge shock” and fears it will be the end of “Pax Americana.”

Sweden’s foreign minister said that after first Brexit and now Trump, “Looks like this will be the year of the double disaster of the West.”

“After Brexit and this election, everything from now on is possible,” French Ambassador to the US Geraud Araud wrote on Twitter. “A world is collapsing before our eyes. Vertigo.”

“The West is no longer,” said a Finnish diplomat I know who wants to remain anonymous. “The times of darkness have dawned. Watch the spineless jump to the bandwagons of fascism, watch rules and rights crumble, as crude power will now have impunity. Forget checks and balances, the rules have just changed. It is back to small-state nationalism and basic survival. The Molotov-Ribbentrop era is back.” He is no hysterical leftist, by the way. He’s a conservative.

Norbert Roettgen, another European conservative on Germany’s foreign affairs committee, spoke in a more moderate yet still worried tone. “We're realizing now that we have no idea what this American president will do if the voice of anger enters office and the voice of anger becomes the most powerful man in the world. Geopolitically we are in a very uncertain situation.”

Earlier this year, Britain actually considered refusing to grant Trump a visa.

The reaction in Asia is more muted, but South Koreans are also quite nervous. Government news agency Yonhap said the “stunning victory of Donald Trump casts deep uncertainty over US policy on the Korean Peninsula and beyond as he has campaigned on pledges to overhaul the relations with allies and renegotiate trade deals under his ‘America First' policy.’” The Korea Times says the US-Korean trade agreement is in “unprecedented jeopardy.”

The Japanese have remained politely neutral, but their stock market is crashing, forcing the government to convene an emergency meeting. The Mexican peso is also crashing, and hard. It is now at its lowest level ever against the dollar.

Those are the reactions among American friends and allies. The Kremlin in Moscow, meanwhile, is euphoric.

“It turns out that the United Russia [Vladimir Putin’s party] has won the elections in the United States!” said Omsk governor Viktor Nazarov.

“Tonight we can use the slogan with Mr. Trump; Yes We Did,” said Boris Chernyshev, a member of the Russian parliament’s ultranationalist faction.

“I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag,” said Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Putin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today).

Putin himself is pleased, of course, and says that the United States and Russia can now restore full diplomatic relations.

Fierce Putin critic Garry Kasparov, meanwhile, is despondent. He wrote a book a while back called Winter is Coming, and last night he tweeted “Winter is here.”

Europe’s far-right is also popping champagne corks. “Their world is falling apart,” said senior French National Front figure Florian Philippot. “Today the United States, tomorrow France!” The National Front’s founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, repeatedly referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a mere “point of detail of the history of the Second World War” and said the Nazi occupation of France “was not particularly inhumane, even if there were a few blunders.”

We can only imagine the paranoia sweeping the Middle East now since Trump has repeatedly said the United States should have “taken the oil” in Iraq. Perhaps he has done us a favor, though, by pointing out to the conspiracy theorists of the world that we did not, in fact, steal Iraq’s oil like they thought we did.

I honestly don’t know what to make of all this. Is the world overreacting? Is Trump serious about NATO and Russia and Iraq and Korea? How much of all that was just campaign bluster? Will he change his mind on a couple of things after he starts getting top secret briefings from our intelligence agencies? Will his advisors steer him in a more mainstream direction?

Your guess is as good as mine.

The New Socialist Realists

I reviewed Sohrab Ahmari’s book, The New Philistines, for City Journal. Here’s the first part.

The general public hates modern art. In an online poll, The Escapist magazine asked if modern art even qualifies as art in the first place. Only one person in five said that it does. At Debate.org, when asked if modern art is real art, 70 percent said no, it’s not. The collapse in artistic standards has been obvious for a while. In 2005, ABC News ran an experiment showing that even most artists and art critics can’t tell the difference between modern art and finger paintings by four-year-olds. Worse, however—and the general public has been dismissing modern art for so long now that most people aren’t even aware of this—the contemporary art world is crippling itself with axe-grinding identity politics.

This is the subject of Sohrab Ahmari’s short, barn-burning polemic, The New Philistines (just published in the U.K. and available now in the U.S. on Kindle, and in April 2017 in hardcover). Ahmari, a London-based Wall Street Journal editorial writer, takes the reader on a tour through London’s dismal art scene, where beauty is out and racial, gender, and sexual identitarianism are in; where form and aesthetics are pitched over the side and replaced with trashy attempts to shock the audience out of some imagined complacency. “Universalist, legible art still brings throngs of reverent, beauty-starved people to the museums, galleries, theaters and cinemas,” he writes. “It is why museum retrospectives of the great masters—from Greek sculpture to high modernism—usually sell out. Meanwhile, the contemporary art world of the identitarians is a desert scattered with tumbleweeds.”

Ahmari was inspired to write The New Philistines after attending a spectacularly unpleasant performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. The theater’s new director, Emma Rice, detests the original Shakespeare. The Bard’s plays, she says, are “tedious” and “inaccessible.” Perhaps, with such a dim view of the source material and its creator, she should have taken a different job, but instead she chose to make Shakespeare more “relevant.” “Relevance meant rewriting the play,” Ahmari writes, “and not just rewriting, but bad rewriting.” For instance, “Away, you Ethiope,” was changed to, “Get away from me, you ugly bitch.” Rice knew that plenty of Shakespeare purists would find her coarse edits appalling, so she had an actor walk on stage in a spacesuit and say, “Why this obsession with text?” She also placed identity politics front and center. She mandated, for instance, that 50 percent of the cast be female regardless of the gender of the characters. “It’s the next step for feminism,” she said, “and it’s the next stage for society to smash down the last pillars that are against us.”

Ahmari was aghast, and he wasn’t alone. The Globe announced last week that Rice would depart after just one season at the helm.

Ahmari decided to investigate the London art world to find out how pervasive this sort of thing actually is and found that the entire scene has become obsessed with identity politics at the expense of everything else, especially beauty and form. “The hostile takeover of a beloved institution was by no means a one-off event,” he writes. “It was an expression of one of the deepest cultural trends of our time. Identity politics now pervade every medium and mode of art, from architecture to dance to film to painting to theater to video, from the highest avant-garde to the lowest schlock.” His first stop was a multimedia installation at Gasworks by London-based Sidsel Meineche Hansen. She created an exhibition that, in her words, “foregrounds the body and its industrial complex” in a “technological variant of institutional critique,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. On a screen looped animated images of a female humanoid named EVA 3.0 stroking a strap-on penis made out of lasers and flames on a wooden bondage and sadomasochism rack.

Ahmari moved on to a film festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts near Trafalgar Square. One of the selected films, YOU ARE BORING, is about what it’s like to be “looked at” within “queer representational politics.” Another, Party for Freedom, is about the supposed “increasingly phobic natures of Western societies (homo-, islamo-, xeno-, to name a few),” ignoring the fact that with legal same-sex marriage sweeping both Europe and North America, one can safely say the West has never been less homophobic. The institute also hosted an exhibit by American artist Martine Syms that explored photography “as a colonial tool.”

During a panel discussion, Ahmari asked two filmmakers if they ever thought about creating projects with nonpolitical content or considered aesthetics. They looked at him like he’d wandered in from another dimension and told him, in so many words, no. He wanted to pull his hair out. “It is almost inconceivable,” he writes, “that so many filmmakers could think of nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing—but the politics of representation, ‘performativity,’ gender, race, queer theory, etc. There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, which belong on the silver (or digital) screen.”

Read the rest in City Journal

An Open Letter to the Next Leader of the Free World

My latest long-form piece has been published in The Tower magazine. Here's the first part.

Dear President-Elect,

Congratulations on winning the election for the 45th president of the United States, but are you sure you really want this?

The world is a mess, as it usually is, and taking on this awesome responsibility right now is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that a devious trickster messed with by moving some of the stickers around.

You are not battling a Hitler or Hirohito that you can bomb into submission. Nor are you facing down a Stalinist empire that you can outspend into oblivion.

You and the citizens whom you have been elected to serve are beset instead by a constellation of problems—international terrorism, rogue states, and a renascent expansionist Russia. These persistent features of our international landscape may not be as dangerous as the Nazi rampage across Europe or the threat of all-out nuclear confrontation, but they are much more intractable. They will bedevil us throughout your presidency and beyond.

You will not be able to democratize the Middle East and drain the swamp of its political pathologies by using regime change or any other tool at your disposal. Nor will you be able to diplomatically “engage” your way to being liked by the Vladimir Putins and Ali Khameneis of the world. You can flush the terrorists of ISIS out of their nests and vaporize them with Predator drones, but they’ll pop up again in some other unstable and anarchic part of the world.

I hate to break it to you, but these are problems to be managed rather than solved. At least the Israelis, who have become masters of this art throughout the brief existence of Jewish state, can commiserate with your unenviable role.

You’re going to have to come to grips with it, though, because it’s all on you now.

The American president, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, is practically a foreign policy dictator. You can start wars without going through Congress. (Congress and the public will complain, don’t kid yourself about that, but it will be too late.) You can end wars—or at least choose to stop fighting and let them continue without you. You can order daring raids against the likes of Osama bin Laden if you think you know where they’re hiding, you can forge and unmake alliances, and you can initiate all kinds of black ops that the public is unlikely to discover as long as they don’t catastrophically fail.

You will have more power and authority on foreign policy than you will over any other area, and since what you do with this power can affect the entire human race, you’d damn well better wield it wisely.

So I’m here to give you some advice, and it’s not quite the same as what you’ll hear from Ivy Leaguers from Foggy Bottom and Langley in their jackets and ties. Unlike most of them, I’ve spent more than a decade on and off in the broken parts of the world. I’ve seen radical Islamic terrorism up close and personal, not just in Lower Manhattan, but also in Beirut and Baghdad. I’ve encountered violent Russian expansionism in person in the post-Soviet republic of Georgia. I’ve spent more time than is good for my health in post-war rubblescapes from Bosnia to Fallujah, and I’ve worked illegally as a journalist inside tyrannical police states from Raul Castro’s Cuba to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya.

My experience spans a Republican administration and a Democratic administration, and though I haven’t seen it all, I’ve seen enough of it, and I’m here to tell you: No party or ideological faction has The Solution because The Solution doesn’t exist. Much of the world beyond our shores is a wreck, and the best you can pull off right now is damage control.

First things first. You need to get real about Russia.

No more “resets” or “bromances.” Vladimir Putin is not your friend.

He is implacably hostile to the U.S. and Europe for one simple reason. He recoils from the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, just as we would have done had the Soviet Union won the Cold War and expanded the Warsaw Pact to Brussels and Amsterdam.

So Putin pushes back anywhere and everywhere he can. The handful of countries in his backyard that haven’t yet joined the European Union and NATO but might some day—Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, and Moldova—must either bow to Russian hegemony or suffer the consequences.

Armenia and Belarus kiss Putin’s ring, but Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova do not, so Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria is occupied by Russian soldiers, while Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, along with Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, aren’t just occupied by the Russians but annexed.

Disputed territory conflicts prevent all of these countries from joining the European Union or NATO.

You can be excused if you didn’t see Russia’s invasion of Georgia coming back in 2008, but Russia’s invasion and bloody dismemberment of Ukraine should have been a no-brainer. I drove from Poland through Ukraine to Crimea in 2010 and predicted in my book, Where the West Ends, that it wouldn’t be long before Russia annexed the region. I said so matter-of-factly. It didn’t even occur to me that the notion would be controversial because it was obvious.

Ukraine’s disaffection with Russia dates back at least to the genocidal hunger-famine of the 1930s, when Josef Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the name of collectivization. In our post-Soviet era, it was inevitable that Ukraine would receive the Moldovan and Georgian treatment and lose Crimea—the best piece of real estate in the country, where almost everybody speaks Russian instead of Ukrainian, and where the Russian navy bases its Black Sea fleet.

Yet somehow—astonishingly—the CIA and the State Department did not see the Crimea invasion coming.

I’m hardly the only person who did see it. I was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi when Russian soldiers invaded and lopped off parts of that country, and the fact that Ukraine was most likely “next” was the talk of the town among Georgians, journalists, and stressed-out resident diplomats.

Surely you remember George Kennan, our ambassador to the Soviet Union under Harry S. Truman and the architect of our Cold War policy of “containment”? “Russia,” he famously said, “can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Any and all of Russia’s borderland countries (the name Ukraine, by the way, means “borderland”) that aren’t under the NATO umbrella and refuse to obey like a good vassal will be invaded and butchered. The was true before the Cold War, it was true during the Cold War, and it’s still true today. It has been true for centuries. Just ask the residents of Siberia and Northeast Asia like the Buryats and the Koryaks who have been conquered so thoroughly that most people don’t even know they exist.

Would it be great if we could get along with Russia or reset relations? Of course. But it’s not going to happen because there’s not a damn thing you can to do change Russia’s national interests or its centuries-long hostility toward its neighbors. You want to know what Putin hears when you outstretch your hand and say we should be partners? He hears what Luke Skywalker heard in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader said, “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Your predecessor Barack Obama said to New Yorker editor David Remnick in 2014 that he didn’t need George Kennan. But he did! He also needed a handful of advisers who’d spent at least some time in post-Soviet space while bullets whizzed past their ears.

Are you familiar with the phrase “echelons above reality?” It’s U.S. militaryspeak for the upper-level headquarters that are so far above the ground that the people who work there have no idea what’s actually happening. It’s where you and most of your advisors live. So please, I implore you, invite at least a couple of people into the Oval Office who have some mud on their boots.


Duterte's Claims of Diplomatic Success Are Premature

On Sunday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that, contrary to earlier reports, Chinese vessels had not left the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. He said, however, China was allowing Filipino fisherman near the contested feature.

The opening of the shoal was an important achievement for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after his visit to Beijing earlier this month.

Lorenzana said that at least four of China’s coast guard craft were still around Scarborough, which is just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon. The feature, just rocks forming a coral lagoon, guards the mouths to strategic Manila and Subic bays. The shoal is about 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese landmass, Hainan Island.

Estonia Prepares for an Anti-Russian Insurgency

Estonia may look like a European country out of a children’s storybook, but it’s bracing to become another Afghanistan.

The Defense League is preparing more than 25,000 volunteers, including women and teenagers, to fight a deadly insurgency against a Russian invasion. It’s training them to make IEDs and strike Russian convoys in hit-and-run attacks, and the government is encouraging everyone to keep guns and ammunition in their houses and hidden in backyards and forests.

They are not overreacting.

“There’s no doubt,” British army Colonel Rupert Wieloch said on the BBC a couple of days ago, “that Russia is looking at Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania as potentially the same as what they did in Ukraine and Crimea.”

And they stand no chance in a conventional stand-up fight if it happens. Estonia is tiny. It’s barely 150 miles across at its widest and could be swallowed by Russia in matter of days. Only 1.3 million people live in the entire country. Its army is only 6,000 strong while hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers are dug in on the other side of the border.

Training soft European civilians to fight like Iraqi and Afghan insurgents (minus the suicide bombing and terrorism) sounds a little bit nuts, but Estonians would have no other choice but surrender if Russia invades and NATO doesn’t come to their aid.

NATO should come to their aid, and the Estonians should not have to do this. They’re in good standing with the alliance which requires every member state to assist any other member state that’s attacked. They decided some time ago, though, that the West might not have the stomach for this sort of thing anymore. 

The Obama administration has caved to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over and over again, and earlier this year the Estonians got a loud and clear signal from even the Republican Party when its nominee Donald Trump said he might not jump to Europe’s defense if its member states “aren’t paying their bills.” Trump didn’t single out Estonia, which has sent troops to fight alongside Americans in Afghanistan, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich did single out Estonia as a country unworthy of full protection, despite the fact that Gingrich himself championed NATO expansion into Estonia shortly after the Cold War.

“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” he said on CBS News. “The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”

America’s bipartisan world weariness isn’t the only reason Estonia is digging in for the worst. Europe’s Baltic region was quiet before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but it’s not anymore.

“A drive across the Baltics reveals a constant hum of military activity,” Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum wrote this summer. “Camouflaged convoys snake down dim roads late at night. Armored personnel carriers idle alongside fields. Belgian, British and Spanish fighter jets thunder across the skies. Before the Crimean annexation, it was rare to see a combat vehicle in the Baltics. Now they are omnipresent, amid a constant cycle of military maneuvers and rotations. The biggest military operation in Europe this year is underway in Poland, where 25,000 troops from 24 nations are engaged in combat exercises that include live fire from tanks.”

And this week, Estonia accused the Russian air force of violating its air space for the sixth time this year. Russia denies it, of course.

If Russia decides to invade Estonia, it won’t be hard for Vladimir Putin to come up with an excuse. Estonia is 25 percent Russian. All he has to do to claim the Russian minority is being mistreated and needs Moscow’s protection. Sure, it will be a ludicrous claim, but that’s exactly what he did when he invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented war in the Russian-speaking Donbass region.

Katja Koort, an ethnic Russian born in Estonia, wrote about the tension between her community and the Estonian majority here in World Affairs two years ago.

Today, parts of the Russian community in Estonia remain quite isolated because many ethnic Russians have stronger links to their historic homeland than to their country of permanent residence. Considering the fact that more than three hundred thousand Russian-speaking people (including Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others) are living in Estonia, accounting for approximately a quarter of the whole country’s population, it’s no surprise that the reluctance of some of them to integrate into Estonian society has caused a number of socioeconomic and political problems, most visibly in major industrial areas of the Soviet era like Ida-Viru County, bordering Russia in the northeast, and the capital, Tallinn. More than twenty years after the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the opinion that time would automatically resolve the integration issue of non-ethnic Estonians, and that the younger generation born here would blend into Estonian society, has not been confirmed in practice.

[…]

The role of Russian media in inciting such ethnic hatred cannot be underestimated, even more so because the standards of official Russian media have sunk back to where they were during the depths of the Cold War. With a few cosmetic exceptions, Russian television news today resembles Stagnation Era propaganda: the nightly program transmits an exaggerated and biased picture of an evil and threatening Western world that now includes the Baltic states, Georgia, and Ukraine. As a counterweight, authorities present a glorified picture of Russia, on display most recently at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II is another favorite theme of Russian programming, and one particularly useful for Putin during his misadventure in Ukraine. Indeed, the victory is evidently the only achievement in recent history that not only upholds Russians’ national pride but also helps justify current military intrusions into neighboring countries that are still portrayed to the people within the Russian sphere of influence as peacekeeping missions undertaken to defend the Russian people. Ironically, Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are very much like those of Nazi Germany in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938–39. In this light, Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century sounds especially ominous.

Estonia’s fears may be overblown. A Russian attack against a NATO member is a very different proposition than kicking around largely defenseless nations like Georgia and Ukraine. Putin knew perfectly well that the United States wouldn’t declare war against him when he attacked isolated countries, but he’d be risking another world war if he struck the Western alliance, especially when British, Belgian and Spanish fighter jets are traversing the skies.

Also, the dovish Obama is on his way out. Hillary Clinton might replace him, and she’s always been more hawkish than he is. If the Republicans take back the White House, I’d expect Trump to instantly reverse his opinions of Putin and NATO if Russia actually mounts an invasion of Europe.

Estonians aren’t willing to bet their country on it, however. Besides, even if Europe and the United States do come to Estonia’s aid in the event that Putin miscalculates and thinks he can get away with something he can’t, Russia will still win the first round.

“If Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow,” writes Dan De Luce in Foreign Policy, “outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.”

A report by Rand Corporation backs that up. “In a series of war games conducted between summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”

The UK’s Daily Mail sent a journalist to the Russian-Estonian border recently and quoted a Russian businessman who lives in St. Petersburg and has a weekend apartment in Tallinn. “Each time I cross here,” he said, “I think it may be the last. Suddenly things are different and people are talking of World War Three. This is the front line between East and West. I am worried, full of foreboding about what happens next.”

Frankly, I doubt Russia will actually invade Europe, but I don’t doubt it the way I doubt Russia will send fighter jets into the skies over New York and Washington. I’m plenty sure that’s not going to happen, but Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania) isn’t New York. The fact that we're even talking about this is not a good sign. Putin might test the US and Europe with a small and plausibly deniable operation or incursion like he did in Ukraine, where he lied and said Russian troops weren’t involved. That’s how Gingrich said Putin would probably do it, and he’s right. And if the West responds with nothing but hand-wringing and talk, Estonia had better fill up its sandbags. 

Georgia Goes for Ganja

In the midst of election turmoil in the small south Caucasus nation of Georgia, one big change went largely unnoticed. On September 29, Georgia’s Constitutional Court made a ruling that has essentially made the possession and use of marijuana legal in the conservative country.

Tabula reports that the court has “ruled that it was unconstitutional to arrest individuals for purchasing or possession of Marijuana, as there is no risk of danger to other individuals.”

The issue was brought to Georgia’s highest court after a young activist named Beka Tsikarishvili sued the government when he was arrested in 2014 and threatened with up to 14 years in prison. Mr. Tsikarishvili argued that jail sentences for possession of marijuana without the intent to distribute was a violation of his personal dignity.

China’s Xi Jinping Creating Succession Turmoil

On Monday, China’s Communist Party began its Sixth Plenum, a closed-door four-day gathering during which the party is considering disciplinary rules and membership standards.

The meeting is also a run-up to next year’s crucial 19th Party Congress, where various succession issues will be decided. And, because some believe that General Secretary Xi Jinping is attempting to break decades-old norms designed to ensure stability and continuity, the meeting will be scrutinized for clues as to the degree to which he has consolidated power inside the ruling organization.

Deng Xiaoping, the successor to founder Mao Zedong, sought to regularize the succession process. He and his successor, Jiang Zemin, put in place various guidelines designed to reduce the scope of disagreement as power passes from one ruler to the next. One such guideline was limiting the party’s general secretary, the most powerful post in China, to two five-year terms.

Children of the Revolution

City Journal sent me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer. More than 20,000 journalists were there, and since I covered the convention for a quarterly magazine, it’s probably safe to say that my piece was published dead-last.

I had to be sure, then, that what I wrote wouldn’t be dated before it even saw print, and I tried to write one that will be relevant for many years.

Here’s the first part.

In this year’s race for the White House, American voters nearly had to choose between a fake Republican and a fake Democrat. Billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump thumped his opponents in the Republican primary after spending his entire adult life as a boorish Democrat. Bernie Sanders nearly grabbed the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton despite spending his entire Senate career as an independent socialist, well to the left of the Democratic Party.

Sanders and Trump are flip sides of the same populist coin. At a glance, they appear to be ideological opposites. Whether incidentally or on purpose, Trump appeals to the so-called alt-Right—the ragtag crew of white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Muslim-haters, neo-Confederates and “birthers.” Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to what might be called the alt-Left—assorted Marxists, “safe-space” activists, cop-haters, anti-Zionists, anti-vaxxers, and blame-America-firsters. Look closer, though: both candidates are populist anti-elitists who claim that “the system” is “rigged.” Both promised to kick over the garbage cans in Washington. Both railed against money in politics. Both claimed that immigration depresses working-class wages. Isolationists in economics and in war, they bucked mainstream Republicanism and Clintonism. And, as Troy Campbell put it in Politico earlier this year, they are both “enabling dissenters” who have “legitimized for discussion ‘fringe beliefs’ that millions of Americans beforehand had been unsure of or too shy to fully embrace, but nonetheless felt strongly about.”

Trump mounted a successful insurgency against the Republican establishment; his rise has ignited fratricidal warfare in the GOP, and no one knows where it will end. The Democratic Party establishment had better luck battling against the Sanders insurgency, putting it down, at least for the time being. But Hillary Clinton is the standard-bearer for a status quo that huge numbers of people on both sides of the political spectrum can no longer stand. In the years ahead, Sanders’s overwhelmingly young supporters will only become more numerous and engaged. If they pull off a hostile takeover someday, the Democratic establishment can’t say that it didn’t hear the warning shots—they rang out loud and clear at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past summer.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that Philadelphia was ground zero for an anti-Clinton insurgency. When I went downtown to pick up my press credentials the day before the convention, furious Sanders supporters swarmed the sidewalks, blocked streets, snarled traffic—and guaranteed overtime pay for local police officers. They chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t vote for Hillary!” They carried placards and signs. CAPITALISM HAS OUTLIVED ITS USEFULNESS, read one. I saw “Bernie 2016” T-shirts everywhere and not a single Hillary shirt. Even without the T-shirts, the Sanders activists were easy to spot. They were the ones who looked like they’d just eaten a sack of lemons. Right in front of Philadelphia’s gorgeous City Hall—it’s the largest in the United States and could fill in for the Paris City Hall in a pinch—a Sanders crowd impersonated a Donald Trump rally, chanting “Lock her up!” and carrying “Hillary for Prison” signs.

Traffic ground to a standstill. My taxi driver ranted and raved, banging on the steering wheel over and over again. He called me “sir,” but I nevertheless felt guilty for being one of tens of thousands of outsiders who had effectively colonized his city and made it nearly impossible for him to do his job. “I’ve been a Democrat my entire life,” he said, “but this year I’m voting for Trump.”

At first glance, it appeared that nearly everybody in Philadelphia hated Clinton, until I saw that the city center was packed with DNC volunteers. They, too, were easy to spot. All wore the same light-blue T-shirts reading “Democratic National Convention” on the front and “Ask Me” on the back. I chatted with some of them, partly because I needed directions and also because I wondered what they thought of the protesters. They made no secret of their contempt for “the Bernie people,” as they called them.

Sanders activists weren’t the only ones taking to the streets that week, hoping for coverage from the journalist hordes. Even more extreme leftist demonstrators gathered as close as they could to the delegates. They screamed, “Go home, F*** Hillary,” and burned American and Israeli flags. Some shouted “Long live the Intifada!,” referring to the wave of Palestinian suicide-bombers who exploded themselves on Israeli buses and in Israeli cafés in the early 2000s.

Philadelphia native Erica Mines led a protest march against police brutality, yelling, “Hillary Clinton has blood on her hands.” One of the signs in her rally read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself.” “Hillary, you’re not welcome here,” read another. “I need all white people to move to the back!” Mines thundered. “This is a black and brown resistance march! If you are for this march and you are here to support, you will take your appropriate place in the back!”

Those whose favored candidates lose a primary election often feel bitter toward the winner, but the Sanders supporters were furious at the entire Democratic Party for allegedly stealing the nomination. Just two days earlier, WikiLeaks had dumped a trove of e-mails onto the Internet, probably acquired from hackers backed by Russian intelligence, that proved that party elites had had it in for Sanders all along. Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had just resigned her position, and at another rally downtown, Sanders supporters chanted, “Debbie is done!”

Sanders and his supporters had a right to be angry, but it doesn’t matter what the establishment wants if the voters want something else. Just look at the GOP. The Republican establishment went after Trump with hammer and tongs, but primary voters put him over the top, and their second choice, Ted Cruz, is another antiestablishment crusader. Establishment pols can’t force voters to do what voters don’t want to do.

The Democratic establishment didn’t have to fight as hard as their Republican counterparts. If Sanders had been ahead during the primary season instead of perpetually lagging behind, the Democratic establishment almost certainly would have blasted him with both barrels, but a Sanders win never looked likely. He won small, overwhelmingly white, states; but Clinton won larger, racially diverse, states in one landslide after another, not because the system was rigged but because Sanders came across to most nonwhite voters as an alternative novelty candidate. The establishment could hold its collective breath and ride out the storm.

The 2016 Democratic National Convention actually sprawled across two main venues: downtown, at the Philadelphia Convention Center, the place for untelevised (and unscripted) meetings and panel discussions between delegates and other party officials; and, a few miles south, the Wells Fargo Center arena in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, where party big shots delivered speeches in front of the television cameras.

On the first day, I headed for the Convention Center for the morning meetings before the televised portion from the Wells Fargo Center kicked off in the late afternoon. On my way inside, a man on the corner handed me a pamphlet for the Communist Party. Everyone who went in got one. The DNC couldn’t keep Communists away from the perimeter any more than it could keep the angry Bernie legions away.

I tossed the Communist propaganda into the garbage and sighed, relieved that I could put the heat, the anger, the yelling, and the political whack jobs behind me. No one could set foot in the convention center without credentials, and the air inside the building was 30 degrees cooler and 50 percent less humid. Still, 100 percent of the T-shirts inside the Convention Center had Bernie Sanders’s name on them. Had I been whisked into an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton lost the primary? Were the halls of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland the previous week filled with people wearing Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio T-shirts? Not a chance.

After a few minutes, I figured it out. Clinton supporters didn’t wear T-shirts. They dressed professionally. Some sported a small Hillary button next to an American flag pin, but they otherwise looked like managers and corporate executives. Sanders supporters looked like hipsters who’d just spent the night on somebody else’s couch, and they appeared to be, on average, about 20 years younger than everyone else.

The data support my observations. Young primary voters overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Sanders, while older voters went overwhelmingly for Clinton. In New York, for instance, Sanders beat Clinton among voters under 30 by a whopping 53 points, yet Clinton still carried the state by 16 points.

Those aren’t the only political data that set young millennials apart from their elders. According to an exhaustive report by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, young people today are considerably more authoritarian and antidemocratic by attitude and temperament than any other generational cohort, especially baby boomers. Only 30 percent think that it’s “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government, and a terrifying 24 percent actually think that a democratic system of government is a bad thing. Only 32 percent of millennials think that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of millennials want the government to ban “offensive” speech.

“The decline in support for democracy,” Foa and Mounk write, “is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a ‘cohort’ effect rather than an ‘age’ effect.” In other words, millennials are likely to carry these ideas and attitudes with them for the rest of their lives. Their contempt for free speech is a stunning reversal of the Free Speech Movement on university campuses in the 1960s led by young boomers who fought hard to topple institutional censorship. Many of today’s young adults, by contrast, want to impose institutional censorship—not just on college campuses but across the nation.

I slipped into a Small Business Council meeting, attended by perhaps 150 people along with a handful participating in a panel. I saw plenty of Hillary buttons and small American flag pins. Nobody wore a Bernie T-shirt. In fact, no one in that room wore any kind of T-shirt. This was a room full of professionals, not unemployed college kids. It had the look and feel of a Rotary Club meeting.

By contrast with the unglamorous and somewhat dreary discussions going on at the Convention Center, the program at the Wells Fargo Center was a pep rally and commercial for TV. The arena is far removed from the city center, in a gigantic ocean of parking lots near two other stadiums. Federal and local authorities set up a perimeter a mile and a half away, manned by police officers who ensured that everyone who passed that point had the proper credentials. Protesters and would-be assassins could not get any closer without being arrested—or shot.

Those of us with credentials had to walk for a half-hour through blazing sunshine, without shade. Temperatures pushed 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. The air was as heavy and hostile as Baghdad’s. My clothes stuck to my skin. I could smell the tar bubbling on the asphalt. I envied, for once, the Sanders delegates in their soft shoes and T-shirts.

Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and heavily armed Secret Service agents manned metal detectors. Black jeeps with the words “Counter Terrorism” stenciled on the sides roamed inside the perimeter. Helicopters flew overhead. Snipers took up positions on the stadium roofs. I haven’t seen so much security anywhere in the world except on military bases in Iraq.

Read the rest in City Journal.

 

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