All posts by Kevin Lees

Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.
Continue reading Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

The 17 world elections you should be watching in 2017

(123rf / Valentin Valkov)

If 2016 was the year when global politics fully embraced populist nationalism, 2017 will be the year when we learn just how successful that approach might be.

In a series of contests across western Europe, the choices that voters make in 2017 will determine the future migration and immigration patterns of a continent and the kind of future the European Union holds as an institution.

Moreover, no one knows quite what to expect when Donald Trump is inaugurated on January 20 in the United States as the country’s 45th president, following a campaign during which Trump reveled in ripping up the norms of American domestic politics and international affairs alike. That volatility could lead to any number of outcomes — a sharp anti-American trend throughout the world, or a folllow-on effect where world voters look to find nationalist Trump-style champions of their own, as the traditional left-right divide in global politics increasingly gives way to a deeper fight between nationalism, often populist, mercantilist and in some cases illiberal, and internationalism, rooted in the kind of economic and social liberalism that has dominated the democratic world since World War II.

That means that 2017 might be one of the most unpredictable years in world politics since the end of the Cold War, as an American-dominated unipolar world increasingly gives way to a multipolar world with new spheres of regional influence.

So what elections should you be watching across the globe this year?

Here are the Suffragio 17 in 2017. Continue reading The 17 world elections you should be watching in 2017

Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

(pixelbliss / 123rf)

There’s no doubt that world politics in 2016 turned nationalist, anti-globalization and increasingly illiberal, and that’s clear from three touchstone elections — Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in May, the decision by British voters to leave the European Union in June and US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November. 

But what if the Brexit referendum didn’t even happen in 2016?

Timing is everything in politics and, when former UK prime minister David Cameron originally announced that he would concede a referendum on EU membership, the law that he and his Conservative-led government later enacted in the House of Commons specified that the referendum would be held no later than December 31, 2017. From 2013 throughout much of the 2015 general election campaign across Great Britain, many commentators and politicians assumed that Cameron would hold the referendum in 2017 — and not in 2016.

* * * * *

RELATED: Leave campaign’s immigration emphasis
could trump Brexit economics

RELATED: In defense of David Cameron

* * * * *

Only after Cameron’s surprisingly strong 2015 victory did his team seriously consider moving the referendum forward to June 2016, barely a year after the Conservative Party’s sweep to reelection.

At the time, the aggressive approach made a certain amount of sense. Cameron was at the height of his political popularity after the 2015 vote, and so the sooner Cameron could move beyond the European question, the better — and the better to end the uncertainty of a Brexit that began with the 2013 decision to hold a vote. A quicker (and shorter) campaign would give the ‘Leave’ camp less time to raise money and win voters that, though divided, seemed to edge toward the ‘Remain’ camp. Another recession, perhaps sparked by a new American administration or more troubles with European banks or debt, in particular, could dampen voter moods about EU matters.  Continue reading Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

2016 Electoral Calendar


The 16 world elections to watch in 2016.

Please click here for the 2013 calendar of world elections.
Please click here for the 2014 calendar of world elections.
Please click here for the 2015 calendar of world elections.

All United States elections and political events are marked in blue.

* * * * *


January 4: Marshall Islands — presidential (indirect)
January 7: Kiribati — parliamentary (2nd round)
January 16: Taiwan — presidential and parliamentary
January 17: Haiti — presidential runoff
January 17: Colima (Mexico) — gubernatorial
January 22: Vanuatu — parliamentary
January 24: Portugal — presidential (indirect)
January 20-28: Vietnam — internal Communist Party leadership elections
January 31: Central African Republic — presidential (runoff)


February 1: Iowa — presidential caucuses
February 9: New Hampshire — presidential primary
February 18: Uganda — presidential and parliamentary
February 20: Nevada — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
February 20: South Carolina — presidential primary (Republican only)
February 21: Niger — presidential and parliamentary (first round)
February 21: Comoros — presidential
February 21: Bolivia — presidential term limits referendum
February 23: Nevada — presidential caucuses (Republican only)
February 25: Jamaica — parliamentary
February 26: Ireland — parliamentary
February 26: Iran — parliamentary and Assembly of Experts
February 27: South Carolina —
presidential primary (Democratic only)
February 28: Benin — presidential (first round)
February: Myanmar/Burma — presidential (indirect)


March 1: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia — presidential primaries
March 1: Colorado — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
March 1: Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming  —
presidential caucuses (Republican only)

March 3: New Zealand — postal referendum on changing flag begins
March 4: Samoa — parliamentary
March 5: Slovakia — parliamentary
March 5: Louisiana — presidential primary
March 5: Kansas — presidential caucuses
March 5: Kentucky and Maine —
presidential caucuses (Republican only)

March 5: Nebraska — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
March 6: Maine — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
March 8: Michigan and Mississippi — presidential primaries
March 8: Hawaii — presidential caucuses (Republican only)
March 9: Idaho — presidential primary (Republican only)
March 13: Benin — presidential (2nd round)
March 13: Baden-Württemberg (Germany) — state elections
March 13: Rhineland-Palatinate (Germany) — state elections
March 13: Saxony-Anhalt (Germany) — state elections
March 15: Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio — presidential primaries
March 20: Niger — presidential (2nd round)
March 20: Kazakhstan — parliamentary
March 20: Laos — parliamentary
March 20: Cape Verde — parliamentary
March 20: Congo-Brazzaville — presidential
March 22: Arizona and Utah — presidential primaries
March 22: Idaho — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
March 24: New Zealand — postal referendum on changing flag ends
March 26: Alaska, Hawaii and Washington — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)


April 2: Vietnam: presidential (indirect)
April 4: Saskatchewan (Canada) — provincial assembly
April 4: West Bengal (India) — state assembly elections begin
April 4: Assam (India) — state assembly elections begin
April 5: Wisconsin — presidential primary
April 8: Djibouti — presidential
April 9: Wyoming — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
April 10: Peru — presidential and parliamentary
April 10: Chad — presidential
April 11: Assam (India) — state assembly elections end
April 13: South Korea — parliamentary
April 13: Syria — parliamentary
April 17: Italy — referendum on offshore drilling
April 19: Manitoba (Canada) — provincial assembly
April 19: New York — presidential primary
April 24: Serbia — parliamentary
April 24: Austria — presidential
April 26: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — presidential primaries
April 27: Guernsey (UK) — assembly


May 3: Indiana — presidential primary
May 5: London (UK) — mayoral and city assembly
May 5: Wales (UK) — regional parliamentary
May 5: Scotland (UK) — regional parliamentary
May 5: Northern Ireland (UK) — regional parliamentary
May 5: West Bengal (India) — state assembly elections end
May 9: Philippines — presidential, parliamentary and local
May 10: Nebraska — presidential primary (Republican only)
May 10: West Virginia — presidential primary
May 15: Dominican Republic — presidential and parliamentary
May 17: Kentucky — presidential primary (Democratic only)
May 17: Oregon — presidential primary
May 16: Kerala (India) — state assembly
May 16: Tamil Nadu (India) — state assembly elections
May 16: Pondicherry (India) — state assembly elections
May 19: West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu Pondicherry (India) — state assembly election results announced
May 20:  Laos — presidential (indirect)
May 22: Vietnam — parliamentary and people’s council
May 22: Cyprus — parliamentary
May 22: Austria — presidential (runoff)
May 22: Tajikistan — referendum on term limits
May 24: Washington — presidential primary


June 1: Somaliland (Somalia) — presidential and parliamentary
before June 2: Puducherry (India) — state assembly elections
before June 5: Assam (India) — state assembly elections
June 5: Aguascalientes, Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and Zacatecas  (Mexico) — various gubernatorial and regional elections
June 5: Macedonia — parliamentary
June 5: Peru — presidential (second round)
June 5: Sardinia (Italy) — regional (first round)
June 6: Saint Lucia — parliamentary
June 12-13: Italy — municipal (first round)
June 7: California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota — presidential primaries
June 7: North Dakota — presidential caucuses (Democratic only)
June 12-13: Italy — municipal elections (first round)
June 14: District of Columbia — presidential primary 
June 19: Sardinia (Italy) — regional (second round)
June 23: United Kingdom — referendum on EU membership
June 25: Iceland — president
June 26: Spain — parliamentary
June 26-27: Italy — municipal (second round)
June 29: Mongolia — parliamentary


July 2: Australia — parliamentary (double dissolution)
July 9: Nauru — parliamentary
July 10: Japan — senatorial (one-half)
July 17: Sao Tome and Principe — presidential 

July 18-21: Republican (US) — national convention

July 25-28: Democratic (US) — national convention


August 3: South Africa — municipal
August 7: Thailand — constitutional referendum
August 11: Zambia — presidential and parliamentary
August 28: Gabon — presidential
August 30: Estonia — presidential (indirect)


September 4: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Germany) —
state elections
September 4: Hong Kong — legislative council
September 8-11: Seychelles — parliamentary
September 11: Belarus — parliamentary
September 11: Croatia — parliamentary
September 11: Cape Verde — presidential
September 18: Russia — Duma/parliamentary
September 18: Chechnhya (Russia) — presidential
September 18: Berlin (Germany) — local elections
September 22: Isle of Man (UK) — parliamentary
September 24: Somalia — indirect parliamentary elections begin
September 24: Labour Party (UK) — leadership race results announced
September 25: Galicia (Spain) — regional elections
September 25: Basque Country (Spain) — regional elections
September 30: Curaçao (The Netherlands) — assembly


October 1: San Marino — capitani reggenti selection
October 2: Austria — presidential revote
October 2: Colombia — referendum on FARC peace deal
October 2: Brazil — municipal (first round)
October 2: Hungary — referendum on EU migration
October 2: Capre Verde — presidential
October 6-7: Parti québécois (Canada) — leadership race
October 7: Morocco — parliamentary
October 8: Georgia — parliamentary
October 9: Lithuania — parliamentary
October 9: Haiti — presidential (first round)
October 10: Somalia — indirect parliamentary elections end
October 15: Afghanistan — parliamentary
October 15: Australian Capital Territory — regional assembly
October 16: Montenegro — parliamentary
October 29: Iceland — parliamentary
October 30: Moldova — presidential
October 30: Somalia — presidential (indirect)
October: Bulgaria — presidential
October: United Nations — secretary-general (internal)
October: Italy — constitutional reform referendum


November 6: Nicaragua — presidential and parliamentary
November 6: Bulgaria — presidential
November 7: Ghana — presidential and parliamentary
November 8: United States — presidential, House,
Senate (one-third) and various gubernatorial elections
November 11: Romania — parliamentary
November 13: Bulgaria — presidential runoff (as necessary)
November 13: San Marino — parliamentary
November 20: Galicia (Spain) — regional
November 20: Les Républicains (France) — presidential nomination
November 27: Congo — presidential and parliamentary
November: Guayana — presidential (indirect)


December 1: Gambia — presidential
December 4: Austria — presidential revote
December 4: Uzbekistan — presidential (snap)
December 7: Ghana — presidential and parliamentary
December 11: Macedonia — parliamentary
December 11: Transmistria (Moldova) — presidential
December: Venezuela — gubernatorial and regional elections
December: Cote d’Ivoire — parliamentary

Karlov assassination in Ankara stuns world amid global leadership vacuum

An AP photo shows the gunman who shot and killed Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday. (AP)

Yesterday was the anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s birth date in 1883. 

It was his assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 that set off a chain reaction leading to World War I.

The world is, rightly, alarmed today with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who had served in one of his country’s most delicate diplomatic roles since 2013 and whose experience included long stints in North Korea, including as ambassador from 2001 to 2006.

The gunman reportedly shouted ‘Allahu akbar,’ and ‘Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!’ as he shot Karlov from behind at a gallery exhibit of Turkish photography.

The assassination comes at a crucial time for relations between Russia and Turkey. Karlov’s killing could immediately chill the fragile diplomatic gains of the last half-year, however, especially at a time when no one really knows what kind of global leadership that president-elect Donald Trump will provide after his inauguration in just over a month in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin as a strong leader and promised to escalate US efforts to push back against ISIS in eastern Syria.

But no one should start preparing for World War III just yet.

Much now depends on how Putin responds — and how nationalist hard-liners within Russia also respond — considering that the gunman seems to have acted with the precise aim of destabilizing the Russia-Turkey relationship. Though Russian nationalists are wary of Turkey, they’re far more hostile to the threat of Islamic extremism. Moreover, the two countries have found common ground when it comes to the threat of Islamic extremism. Karlov’s assassination might ultimately Turkey and Russia together more closely Turkey in efforts to eradicate ISIS and other jihadist elements in the Middle East. The incoming Trump administration would almost certainly welcome and join that common front.

* * * * *

RELATED: Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

* * * * *

If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s worth noting that the two countries have been moving closer together after last summer’s coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Relations hit their worst point in December 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border. Today, a year later, relations are much improved, if still strained. That means that the diplomatic channels between the two countries are far more open to deal with a trauma like Karlov’s assassination.  Continue reading Karlov assassination in Ankara stuns world amid global leadership vacuum

What to expect from Italy’s new government

Image result for gentiloni
Far from a rupture, Italy will get more of the same under its new prime minister Paolo Gentiloni. (AFP / Getty)

Consider Italy’s new government renzismo without Renzi.

A week after Matteo Renzi failed, in spectacular measure, in his efforts to win Italian voter approval of his ill-fated referendum on political reform, Italy has a new prime minister after consultations between Renzi, other political leaders and Italian president Sergio Mattarella.

With no more than 15 months (and likely far less) until the next general election, Italy’s new premier Paolo Gentiloni will lead a government that looks much like the one Renzi led until last week — one dominated by the centrist and reformist wing of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

Given that the Democrats and their centrist allies retain a majority in the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Camera dei deputati (Chamber of Deputies), it was almost certain that Mattarella would appoint someone from the Italian left. It was not certain that Mattarella would turn to a Renzi ally, however, given the longstanding tradition of non-partisan ‘technocratic’ governments in Italian politics. Still, Gentiloni was a colorless Roman aristocrat with an undistinguished political career until his sudden ascent to foreign minister two years ago. He replaced Federica Mogherini, who departed Renzi’s government in 2014 to serve as the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Today, Mogherini remains a rising star who may yet eclipse even Renzi from her perch as Europe’s top diplomat.

Gentiloni, who hails from Roman nobility, began his career in journalism, switching to politics in the 1990s as an ally of Francesco Rutelli, a former centrist mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001. Both of them served in the short-lived government of Romano Prodi from 2006 to 2008; Rutelli as deputy prime minister and culture minister, Gentiloni as communications minister. In the center-left primary to determine the party’s candidate in the 2013 Roman mayoral election, Gentiloni finished in third place with just 14% of the vote.

Despite strong marks for his time as foreign minister, no one expects Gentiloni to remain prime minister longer than the next election, no matter who wins.

* * * * *

RELATED: Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world
for Italy or the EU

* * * * *

Gentiloni, instead, looks more like a caretaker who will lead the government through rough months ahead while Renzi licks his wounds back home in Florence and prepares for the next election.

Perhaps most consequentially for Europe (and global markets), Gentiloni’s cabinet retains Renzi’s finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan, himself seen as a potential successor to Renzi. Other key ministers retained include defence minister Roberta Pinotti and justice minister Andrea Orlando, while Angelino Alfano, previously interior minister, will assume Gentiloni’s new role as foreign minister.

Italian banks on the brink

With his confidante running the government, Matteo Renzi is now free to start crafting his own political comeback from the sidelines. (Facebook)

Gentiloni and Padoan will turn most immediately to efforts to calm markets about Italy’s tottering banks and, in particular, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS).  Increasingly, it seems likely that the bank, the world’s oldest (dating back to 1492, will require a bailout from the government, potentially angering taxpayers. Potentially, the government might also require a ‘bail-in’ of the bank’s investors, potentially angering Italy’s capital class. Other Italian banks in need of capitalization may come in for the same treatment. Essentially, Italian banks today find themselves in much the same position as American banks in 2009 — undercapitalized and sitting on far too many non-performing loans. While the U.S. bailout in 2008 and 2009 was far from popular, in today’s climate, in a country like Italy, where joblessness and listless (or negative) growth have become endemic, a bailout could be far more toxic.

Renzi may believe that, by leaving such unpopular steps to Gentiloni and Padoan, he can emerge later in 2017 or 2018 for a comeback — not unlike Silvio Berlusconi, himself forced from office twice, despite dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades.

That may be too clever by half. Continue reading What to expect from Italy’s new government

Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is rumored to be Donald Trump’s pick to serve as Secretary of State.

In a ‘normal’ presidential administration, nominating the CEO of one of the world’s leading oil companies as the chief diplomatic officer of the United States would be a maverick, refreshing and, perhaps, inspiring choice.

After all, it takes some diplomatic skill to navigate the tangled shoals of doing business in some of the world’s leading oil producers, and foreign policy mandarins in Washington certainly have no monopoly on international affairs. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson has embraced the need for alternative energy sources, he has demonstrated that he understands the global challenges of climate change, and he has been a canny and creative executive. He’s obviously a very intelligent guy.

In Donald Trump’s administration, however, Tillerson would be a disastrous choice — for at least two reasons.

The first is the hulking brown bear in the room. Continue reading Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

Why Branstad is such a smart choice as ambassador to China

Iowa governor Terry Branstad has a longstanding relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping. (Getty Images)

There are a lot of reasons to doubt US president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security and foreign affairs team.

But his choice of Iowa governor Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China isn’t among them.

Branstad, it’s true, doesn’t speak Mandarin like former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, rumored to be under consideration for Trump’s State department. Nor is he an American of Chinese descent like former Washington governor Gary Locke. Both Huntsman and Locke served as ambassadors to China in the Obama administration.

Branstad has been elected to six terms as Iowa’s governor (for the first time in 1982 and most recently in 2014), and he has increasingly seen the effects of closer trade with China from the vantage point of a state that, after California, produces more agricultural output than anywhere else in the United States.

More importantly, however, Branstad has something of a personal relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平). Branstad was serving as governor when Xi made a two-week trip as part of a Chinese delegation to rural Muscatine in Iowa. Since that time, Branstad has visited China many times, most recently at a trade delegation in 2011, and Branstad hosted a dinner for Xi in 2012 when China’s paramount leader returned to Iowa.  Continue reading Why Branstad is such a smart choice as ambassador to China

Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world — for Italy or the EU

Prime ministry Matteo Renzi is resigning after losing a key referendum on reforming Italy's political institutions.
Prime minister Matteo Renzi is resigning after losing a key referendum on reforming Italy’s political institutions.


The xenophobic leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League), Matteo Salvini, jubilantly Tweeted out a message last night as it looked increasingly like the government’s referendum on reforming Italian political institution would fail: Italy Flag Icon

‘Long live Trump. Love live Putin, long live Le Pen and long live the League.’

So much for dog whistles.

Salvini, and the increasingly illiberal and populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) of comedian Beppe Grillo, founded in 2009 as an anti-austerity platform, want to use the referendum’s failure as proof that their vision.

Don’t let them.

Beware anyone, in fact, who claims that there’s a single, clear message from Matteo Renzi’s spectacular failure Sunday night. It’s a lot more nuanced than the message Salvini and Grillo are projecting, that some rising populism of the right has now beat back the elites. Far from it. Remember, even The Economist opposed  a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum. The opposition also included the center-right Forza Italia, now weaker but still headed by Silvio Berlusconi; former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, a former European commissioner; Pier Luigi Bersani, the informal leader of the old-guard Italian left that had always been wary of Renzi; and democratic socialists like Nichi Vendola, the former regional president of Puglia.

The measure failed by a margin of 59.11% to 40.89%. Only three regions — Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Trentino-South Tyrol — voted yes.  Continue reading Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world — for Italy or the EU

What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

French President François Hollande will not stand for election, he announced earlier today.
French President François Hollande will not stand for election, he announced earlier today.

François Hollande’s decision not to seek reelection should have been a no-brainer. He’s obviously a drag on his party, the Parti socialiste, and he should have cleared the path for potential successors months ago, given his massive unpopularity. France Flag Icon

Before taking a look at what this means for the 2017 presidential contest, it’s worth noting how spectacular the last two weeks of French politics have been — two of the seven presidents of the Fifth Republic have now been vanquished altogether, their careers ended. Au revoir, Hollande. Au revoir, Nicolas Sarkozy.

* * * * *

RELATED: The nightmare French election scenario
no one is talking about

* * * * *

Looking to the future, Hollande’s decision now clears the way for his prime minister, the once very popular (now less so) Manuel Valls, a 54-year old, Spanish-born official who previously served as interior minister with a reputation as a tough-guy reformer on the center-right of the Socialists. Hollande’s decision gives Valls the green light to proceed without adding to the considerable bad blood between France’s president and prime minister. Continue reading What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

The case for Romney in Trump’s State Department

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (right) met with president-elect Donald Trump Tuesday night.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (right) met with president-elect Donald Trump Tuesday night.

Donald Trump’s ego, it’s safe to say, is bigger than his sense of service to the country. USflag

Mitt Romney’s sense of service to the country is bigger than his ego.

Therefore, we all saw what we saw on Tuesday night — Romney returned for a second meeting with Trump and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to discuss, presumably among other things, Romney becoming the next US secretary of state. Romney, who refused to endorse Trump in the general election, also had kind words to say in the lobby of Trump Tower about the president-elect, months after he labeled Trump a ‘fraud’ in an extraordinary broadside against Trump in the contest for the Republican nomination.

In the last 36 hours, Romney has been thoroughly mocked for it in the media and by comics.

But we also know that, by every measure, Romney has acted in every public capacity as a man of honor, integrity, ethics and character. No one would say that about Trump.

Moreover, the United States has an incoming president who will, for the first time in American history, receive on-the-job training. Priebus, for all his skills, has no experience in government, which is almost equally bizarre for a White House chief of staff. Steve Bannon, the chief strategist to the president, is the former CEO of the hard-right Breitbart News, which is frankly terrifying to just about everyone.

But the inexperience also extends to Trump’s immediate foreign policy staff in the West Wing. Mike Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who will serve as national security adviser, for all his military experience and as a gifted intelligence officer, has no experience in White House politics or forming national security policy, and he carries to the job his own ethical, personal and policy issues. Neither, in any meaningful sense, does the incoming deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, have genuine government experience to craft foreign policy in the 21st century.

When Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, delivered that scathing speech in March about Trump, Trump’s business and personal conduct and Trump’s inexperience to serve as US president, he was 100% right. Romney’s remarks Tuesday night didn’t exactly apologize for those prior views, which he must certainly still hold. Instead, Romney focused on the steps that Trump has taken from his election-night victory speech onward through the transition.

In short: that was then, and this is now, and the American electorate has spoken. There’s an instinct to say that we cannot ‘normalize’ what Trump represents in terms of American democracy or the constitutional separation of powers or the kind of respect for immigrants, minorities and others that should be bedrock in a healthy democracy that guarantees equal rights for everyone.  Continue reading The case for Romney in Trump’s State Department

The nightmare French election scenario no one is talking about

Former prime minister François Fillon is now the odds-on favorite for the French presidency, but five months is a long time. (Facebook)
Former prime minister François Fillon is now the odds-on favorite for the French presidency, but five months is a long time. (Facebook)

After Sunday night, it’s suddenly hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe François Fillon will be France’s next president.France Flag Icon

With a commanding come-from-behind victory on November 20 against former president Nicolas Sarkozy, vanquishing the combative and contentious leader’s hopes at a presidential comeback, Fillon easily won the nomination of the center-right Les Républicains against former foreign minister Alain Juppé.

Indeed, polls show that Fillon (unlike Sarkozy) has taken a clear lead against the far-right Marine Le Pen, the leader of the populist and nationalist Front national that has developed a hearty contempt for the European Union, Muslim immigrants and economic liberalism, both in the first round scheduled for April 2017 and in the runoff. François Hollande, the incumbent president, has alienated nearly everyone in France with his out-of-touch and incompetent attempts at implementing both progressive and centrist policies.

Hollande is still the nominal leader of his party, the center-left Parti socialiste, but he is no lock for renomination, and he could face a challenge from his own prime minister, the Spanish-born Manuel Valls or from the populist left in Arnaud Montebourg, a former industry minister who is perhaps best known outside France for a decree that attempted to prevent foreign takeovers of assets across a range of national industries. We’ll know the winner of that primary after January 22 and January 29, but none of them come close to either Le Pen or Fillon in the polls.

So given the choice between a competent, grey-haired, bureaucratic figure like Fillon and a firebrand populist like Le Pen (viewed as troublingly illiberal, eurosceptic and xenophobic by a wide swath of the French electorate), the choice seems an echo of France’s 2002 race. In that year, incumbent center-right president Jacques Chirac faced, to everyone’s shock, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in that year’s presidential runoff. Chirac, with the wide support of the French center-right, moderates and the left, easily dispatched Le Pen by the margin of 82.2% to 17.8%.

Indeed, Fillon’s acceptance speech Sunday night after winning the Republican nomination had the tone of a presidential acceptance speech, and his campaign indicates that it will run on the kind of ‘steady hand’ approach that feels eerily like the complacent approach Hillary Clinton took on her march to losing the US presidential election to Donald Trump earlier this month.

But it’s not 2002, and the first-round dynamics for France’s election next April could easily shape up in a way where four candidates are vying for a shrinking moderate share of the vote, leaving open a clear path to the runoff for the far right (through Le Pen) and for the far left in Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is already placing third in some polls.

It’s far too early to make predictions, especially without knowing the Socialist nominee in 2017. But there’s probably a far higher risk of a Mélenchon-Le Pen runoff than most observers currently imagine (as I’ll explain below). Note that there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of scenario across world politics. Just think about the race for the US Republican presidential nomination in 2015 and 2016, where a wide field of ‘normal’ conservatives split the establishment vote, facilitating Trump’s rise.

But the clearer example is Peru’s 2011 election, when a crowded field of former presidents and moderates all canceled each other out, leaving a runoff between Keiko Fujimori, the conservative daughter of Peru’s former dictator and Ollanta Humala, a leftist former army officer who previously had nice things to say about socialism and chavismo. At the time, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa likened it to a choice between AIDS and cancer and, six years later, there are an awful lot of French voters who would feel the same way about a runoff between Mélenchon and Le Pen. Continue reading The nightmare French election scenario no one is talking about

Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in 1959, when Cubans were briefly united in support behind the young new revolutionaries.

History will remember him in the same breath as Mandela or Gandhi for 1959.cuba

History will remember him in the same breath as all the other 20th century monsters for every year that followed.

That’s the tragedy and the shame of the Castro legacy. Continue reading Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Sarko’s defeat is great news for French (and global) moderates

Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France's conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)
Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France’s conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)

The sound that you heard Sunday evening?France Flag Icon

A sign of relief across the liberal democratic world that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy sank to third place in the presidential primary of the center-right Les Républicains (the Republicans), the successor to the party that Sarkozy once led and that he helped to rechristen and remake over the last two years.

Instead, his former prime minister, François Fillon, a social conservative who promises Thatcher-style reforms to the French economy, and his former foreign minister (and long-ago Chirac prime minister) Alain Juppé, who has promised a far more moderate approach to governance than either Sarkozy or Fillon, will head to a runoff next Sunday, November 27.

But with Fillon’s dramatic first-place finish, following a week-long reversal in the polls for both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé, and with Sarkozy’s quick endorsement of Fillon’s candidacy, Juppé appears to have a limited path to victory next week.

Fillon may or may not prove a stronger candidate than Juppé. But he most certainly will be stronger than Sarkozy.


No matter what you thought of his presidency, Sarkozy’s defeat is good news for everyone on the right, middle and left who hopes to prevent Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Front national (National Front) from winning the presidency in May 2017. France chooses a president in two rounds — the two individuals with the most votes in a first-round April vote advance to a May runoff. Polls show today that Le Pen would almost certainly win one of those two runoff spots.

Sarkozy, more than Juppé or Fillon, was willing to run in 2017 (much as he did in 2007) by co-opting the language, if not the outright policies, of the far right. On immigration and crime, in particular, Sarkozy telescoped that he would compete with Le Pen primarily on her own turf. For many French voters who find Le Pen’s views on immigration, Islam, and the European Union repugnant, Sarkozy would have reinforced and normalized those views, pulling Le Pen closer to the heart of France’s political debate.

In 2007, Sarkozy effectively sidelined Le Pen by co-opting her rhetoric. That, in retrospect, only empowered Le Pen and her movement. In 2017, Le Pen will prove a far greater threat. French voters have now rejected Sarkozy (in 2012), and his leftist rival François Hollande, featuring approval ratings as low as 4%, faces a quixotic hope for reelection. With the French electorate so unhappy with the status quo, and after the shocking victories for Brexit in the United Kingdom and for Donald Trump in the United States, Le Pen must now be taken seriously as a threat to win the Élysée Palace next spring.

Even as Sarkozy’s nomination would have emboldened Le Pen and the illiberal, populist right, he would have simultaneously embodied everything that many French voters despise — the ostentatious ‘bling-bling’ nature of his presidency, the drama of his whirlwind romance with Carla Bruni, the attempts at neoliberal reform that voters have come to blame for inequality and stagnation. Even worse, Sarkozy would have gone into the 2017 elections under a legal and ethical cloud that aggregates several lawsuits and scandals, not least of which the notion that he received political funding from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in his 2007 election.

With the French left in tatters after Hollande’s disastrous and ineffective presidency, and with several figures on the left likely to compete for votes in the first round, Sarkozy might well have ended up as Le Pen’s challenger in the runoff, where he would have been an easy foil for Le Pen as the compromised avatar of a failed French political establishment — just as Trump so effectively demolished the scions of the American political establishment in Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

It’s true that Juppé and Fillon both carry baggage as figures associated with the French political establishment. So, too, will Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande economy minister who announced earlier this month that he will stand as an independent in the presidential election (and who might eventually outpace Fillon to the runoff). So, too, will Hollande or the eventual nominee of Hollande’s leftist Parti socialist(PS, Socialist Party).

But Sarkozy would have personified the worst of the French political establishment while also giving political cover to the National Front’s far-right views on politics and policy. Fillon, Juppé, Macron and the eventual Socialist nominee (likelier than not the brash, Spanish-born centrist prime minister Manuel Valls) will all certainly talk tougher about immigration and security in 2017, given the traumatic Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and Nice terrorist attacks. None of them, however, seem poised to parrot the Le Pen line on immigration or on France’s Muslims to the extent Sarkozy was willing.

The Le Pen threat, now much more tangible than it was before Trump’s election two weeks ago, is still a serious one. But classic economic liberals and social liberals, on both the right and the left, should be relieved that they will not have to rally around such a clearly flawed candidate as Sarkozy at a time when Le Pen’s support is cresting.

Like it or not, the multipolar era is coming sooner than we thought


One of the most important concepts in international relations is polarity, which is just a term that political scientists use to describe power in the international system.USflag

Typically, we think of the global order in three separate modes:

  • Unipolar, where one overweening global power dominates (such as the United States, more or less, after the Cold War).
  • Bipolar, where two rivals view for global power (such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War).
  • Multipolar, where several regional powers balance one another (such as Prussia/Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the decades between Napoleon and World War I).

In the view of many scholars, the world has been stuck in American-dominated unipolarity for years, slowly gliding (hopefully peacefully) to a multipolar world, sometime far off in the distance. At some point, most scholars believed, the rise of China, and possibly other powers, such as Russia, India or a united Europe, would allow for a multipolar world gradually to unfold.

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States means, above all, that we’re hurtling even more rapidly to that emerging multipolar world, and you can see it in the global response to his shock election a week ago. Continue reading Like it or not, the multipolar era is coming sooner than we thought