Americans haven’t elected a take-no-prisoners executive bound to drag the country into a hard-right populist dystopia.
Instead, they’ve elected a third-party-style insurgent (albeit from within the Republican Party) who will struggle to make allies in either congressional party and fizzle out after four years of smoke, but not a lot of noise — or economic or policy accomplishments.
It already happened — in Minnesota. In 1998, voters weary of grey establishmentarians, elected instead the flamboyant Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler. Christening himself as Jesse ‘the Mind’ Ventura, he narrowly clipped Republican Norm Coleman (then St. Paul mayor) and Democrat Skip Humphrey (the son of the former vice president). But Ventura, in his one lonely term as governor, transformed a $4 billion budget surplus into a $4.5 billion deficit and otherwise spent most of his time fighting with the media and with members of the state legislature.
Ventura, who ran and governed on the quirky Reform Party ticket founded in 1996 by Ross Perot, lent his support in 2000 to Trump’s nascent bid for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. Trump eventually lost to the anti-trade, anti-immigrant conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
Far from a lapse to 1930s-style authoritarianism, perhaps the Trump administration will be far more like a national version of the Ventura experiment. Trump has already squandered nearly a quarter of his first 100 days on distractions and controversy.
Though US president Donald Trump officially took office just six days ago, his willingness to push his key campaign proposal of building a border wall along the southern border of the United States has already touched off a diplomatic crisis with Mexican officials. After Trump enacted an executive order (of somewhat dubious legality) instructing the federal government to start construction on the wall, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled a planned trip to meet Trump in Washington today.
Though Peña Nieto welcomed Trump on a surprise campaign visit to Mexico City last summer, backing down from confronting someone who was then just the Republican Party presidential nominee, Wednesday’s executive order and the White House’s insistence that Mexico will pay for the wall led Peña Nieto to push back in a video message late Wednesday night. Trump responded with his own Twitter rant on Thursday, essentially daring Peña Nieto to cancel the meeting, during which the two presidents planned to discuss cooperation on security and renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
No one, however, has been more outspoken against Trump than Fox, who served as president between 2000 and 2006 and who has railed against Trump’s proposed border wall, routinely in profane terms. In September, Fox gleefully took a bat to a Trump-shaped piñata and, upon completion, noted that Trump was just was empty-brained as the empty piñata.
Fox is a former president who knows a little something about political revolutions.
In 2000, he became the first president in seven decades from outside the long-governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party). His election, to this day, represents a watershed moment in Mexico’s multiparty democracy. Fox (and his successor) are members of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party) that held the Mexican presidency for 12 years — until the telegenic Peña Nieto’s election in 2012, when the PRI returned to Los Pinos. Fox, like George W. Bush in the 1990s, was a governor, and before the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks refocused the Bush administration’s efforts, the two presidents had hoped to work together on immigration reform and deeper harmonization between the two countries, a priority that fell to the back burner with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Continue reading Mexico starts to fight back in earnest against Trump’s US border wall and protectionism threat→
Keeping a promise from his 2016 campaign, US president Donald Trump formally pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership today, a 12-nation trade and investment agreement in the works for nearly a decade.
Though the move will win plaudits from both the populist right and the anti-trade left (including Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate) Trump’s move is the first major unforced foreign policy error of the Trump administration. TPP opposition brings together an ascendant protectionist coalition that includes many of Trump’s populist supporters, but also many rust-belt and leftist Democrats and many organized labor officials.
In junking the US role in the TPP, a death knell for the trade accord, Trump has now cleared the way for the People’s Republic of China to set the baseline for trade rules across the Asia-Pacific region, negating hopes from the previous Obama administration to ‘pivot’ the country’s strategic and economic orientation toward the fast-growing region and backtracking on a decades-long bipartisan consensus that the United States takes an open and, indeed, leading approach to the ideal of free trade.
Though the general terms of global trade will continue to be governed by the World Trade Organization, regional trade deals allow for countries to deepen trade ties in ways that go beyond the standard WTO rules and to develop strategic alliances.
Trump railed against the TPP from the earliest months of his presidential campaign, arguing that it gave China an unfair advantage:
The TPP is horrible deal. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.
But China was never a signatory to the TPP and, indeed, was never party to the 12-country talks that also included stalwart US allies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. The US national interest in negotiating and signing an agreement like the TPP would have been to create a trade paradigm in the region that seeks to help US interests in contrast to Chinese interests and, of course, to draw both traditional allies and new allies closer to the United States economically and strategically.
If anything, the TPP provided a framework to protect the United States from Chinese competition. To the extent that American manufacturing jobs have suffered as a result of international trade, and from trade with China, in particular, it has come from the decision in 2000 by a Republican Congress and Democratic president Bill Clinton to grant permanent normal trade relations to China (which had previously been subject to an annual congressional vote) and in 2001 to admit China to the WTO, lessening the ability of the United States to deploy protective tariffs against China.
Three days before Donald Trump takes office as the most protectionist and nationalist American president since before World War II, and on the same day that British prime minister Theresa May outlined her vision of a ‘hard’ Brexit from both the European Union and the European single market, Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) made an audacious claim for China’s global leadership in the 21st century.
Xi, who delivered a landmark speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, made that claim by embracing the values that American leaders have globally championed for decades (at least prior to Trump’s rise): a stable world order, free trade among nations and the notion that globalization, for all its faults, makes everyone better off.
Xi’s speech, the first ever by a Chinese leader at the World Economic Forum, is the most high-profile response so far from China’s president to Trump’s election. Despite Xi’s generally measured and cautious prose — he never once mentioned Trump by name — there’s no way to view Xi’s remarks other than as a warning and a rebuke to the rise of populist nationalism and protectionism in the United States and Europe over the last 18 months.
There’s a lot of justified ridicule of Davos as the gathering of self-important global ‘elites,’ but Xi’s speech today is perhaps the most important one that’s ever taken place during the forum.
Opening with a line from Charles Dickens, Xi pledged to keep opening China’s economy to the world, and he committed China to a stabilizing role in the world, including to the Paris accord on climate change, and to reforming the global financial system to smooth its bumpiest elements.
But the key point from Xi’s speech is this: ironically, jaw-droppingly, and likely not for the first time in the Trump era, the head of the world’s largest and most durable Communist Party took to the international stage to defend some of the fundamental principles of global capitalism.
Make no mistake, Xi Jinping is not coming to Davos to embrace those other values that remain a hallmark of what American global leadership projects — individual liberty, political freedom and liberal democracy with broad-based protections of civil and minority rights. Notably, no one today can claim that the People’s Republic of China under Xi enjoys the same political freedoms as Americans and Europeans do.
In 2016, China ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index (only Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea were worse). Under Xi, Chinese censorship of the Internet has worsened, with fewer VPN networks still available to circumvent state controls. Under Xi, political dissent has been less tolerated than at any time in the recent past, even in traditionally liberal Hong Kong. Critics allege that Xi’s wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign amounts to a power grab designed to eliminate Xi’s internal enemies. Taiwan’s rejection of a services trade agreement with Beijing and the election of a nominally pro-independence president in Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) have worsened cross-straits relations. China’s east Asian allies are increasingly on alert over Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, Xi’s remarks were a consequential turning point for a country that is home to the world’s largest population (1.3 billion) and its second-largest economy, and a sign that China very much expects to take a stronger global leadership role in the years ahead.
In three key ways, Xi challenged Trump’s world view even before the incoming US president has taken the oath of office. Xi’s gauntlet comes just days after Trump blasted both NATO and the European Union in interviews over the weekend, alienating traditional US allies across the continent and stirring anxiety over the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Continue reading Three ways that Xi Jinping, Davos man, undermined Trump today→
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.
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.
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→
After a four-day delay between Gabon’s election and the announcement of results — an interval that saw an increased military presence in the capital city of Libreville and across the country, and that brought an Internet blackout that blocked access to Facebook and other social media outlets — protestors set the national assembly ablaze Wednesday and an opposition headquarters has been bombed in what could become a sustained stalemate between president Ali Bongo Ondimba and challenger Jean Ping over Gabon’s next government.
When the results were finally announced amid the tense post-election climate, Ali Bongo had won reelection to a fresh seven-year term, albeit by a narrow margin. That would sustain the governing Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG, Gabonese Democratic Party) in power through 2023 — incidentally, far longer than the PDG governed as the only party in a one-party state.
Gabon, a country of nearly 2 million people, is rare in that its nGDP per capita of nearly $8,300 (per the World Bank’s 2015 estimate) is far higher than most of sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to its oil wealth. That’s given the Bongo family, since the first decade of Gabon’s post-independence history, the resources to run the central African country, nudged on the western coastline south of Cameroon, as a family fiefdom. Up to a third of the country, nevertheless, lives in poverty as a result of the unequal distribution of oil profits.
Ali Bongo was first elected in 2009, following the 46-year rule of his father, Omar Bongo, who had governed the oil-rich central African country since shortly after it won independence from France.
His challenger, Ping, is a 73-year-old veteran of Gabon’s government who served as Omar Bongo’s foreign affairs minister from 1999 to 2008, president of the UN general assembly from 2004 to 2005 and who chaired the Commission of the African Union (the African Union’s executive and administrative arm) from 2008 to 2012. Ping’s father, Cheng Zhiping, was a Chinese businessman who emigrated from Wenzhou to France, where he worked for a time in a bicycle factory, and finally to Gabon, where he married and raised his family. After leaving the African Union in 2012, he turned both to the private sector and to Gabonese politics, resigning in 2014 from the ruling party and making plans to run for this year’s election. But Ping was once even married to Omar Bongo’s daughter Pascaline and had two children with her. Until two years ago, he would have represented exactly the kind of status quo that many Gabonese voters want to change. Though Ping has strong ties to China and is internationally well known, it’s not clear that his top priorities would be reducing corruption or political and government reform.
Historically Gabon has been a classic kleptocracy, and Omar Bongo ruled the country as his personal fiefdom and one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Françafrique, which normalized often shady connections between French and colonial political, financial and other vectors. French oil companies would extract Gabon’s post-independence oil wealth, and Elf Aquitaine, the former French state oil company, would some of Gabon’s oil proceeds to a special personal slush fund for Omar Bongo and the Bongo family.
While Bongo introduced multiparty elections in 1990, the benefits of incumbency (and an array of tricks to deny opposition candidates funding, to refuse equal access to media and other state resources and to deploy tribute to voters during election campaign) kept the Bongo family easily in power, even after Omar Bongo’s death in 1990.
Three factors made the August 28 presidential election in Gabon surprisingly close — and will continue to shape what could be days, months or even years of political uncertainty.
First, Ali Bongo’s hold on power is far weaker than his father’s ever was, though he served as a longtime figure in his father’s regime. Though he managed to win election after Omar Bongo’s death in 2009, it was after a closely fought contest against several officials who had also figured prominently in previous Gabonese governments. In the current campaign, Ali Bongo’s opponents claimed that he wasn’t even Gabonese — instead, a war refugee from Nigeria clandestinely adopted by Omar Bongo. The president’s supporters have dismissed it as akin to the ‘birther’ movement that inaccurately claimed US president Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya (and not in Hawaii). Moreover, voters in 2016 may have grown weary of the Bongo family, more willing to take a chance on limited change in the form of a Ping-led government.
Second, 81% of Gabon’s export wealth — and 43% of the country’s GDP and 46% of government revenue — derives from oil. Needless to say, the past two years have been economically difficult for Gabon as global oil prices remain depressed. It hasn’t helped that China, one of Gabon’s chief trading partners, is suffering an economic slowdown and, accordingly, there’s far less demand for Gabon’s oil as well as its iron ore deposits. Ping, throughout the campaign, has attacked Ali Bongo’s efforts to diversify the Gabonese economy as widely inadequate. The problem goes even deeper for Gabon, though, because it reached peak extraction in 1997 and its oil production has steadily declined since. Gabon in 2014 was producing just 240,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the world’s 37th most oil-productive country. In a decade or two, Gabon’s oil wealth might be extinguished completely, leaving the country struggling to maintain its current level of development.
Finally, several rivals in the final days of the campaign, including former Bongo prime minister Casimir Oyé Mba and former National Assembly president Guy Nzouba Ndama, dropped out of the presidential race in a coalition designed to unite the anti-Bongo movement behind Ping’s candidacy. Under Gabon’s election rules, the candidate with the most voters wins — period. There’s no second-round runoff or the requirement that a candidate win a 50%-plus absolute majority. That gave Ping and the opposition a real chance of overtaking Ali Bongo.
Together, those reasons explain why Ping and his supporters remains so skeptical about the results, announced after several days of delay and after an ominous military mobilization that’s now in danger of tilting into widespread violence.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ping’s camp that the government announced a narrow victory for Ali Bongo. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ali Bongo’s supporters that Ping would placidly concede defeat. European Union observers said that the vote count ‘lacked transparency.’ But there’s ample evidence that the narrow margin of victory (of around just 5,500 votes) might be explained in full by possible fraud in Haut-Ogooué, the eastern-most of Gabon’s nine provinces, much of it bordering the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) and, most notably of all, Ali Bongo’s home province.
There, mysteriously, 99% of the electorate turned out (compared to a national turnout rate of around 59.5%) and supported Ali Bongo with 99.5% of the vote. The discrepancy makes it almost certain that Ali Bongo would have fallen short of victory in a legitimate election.
That leaves Gabon in a political state of emergency, because Ping and the Gabonese opposition seem unlikely to back down in the face of obvious electoral fraud. The question now is whether Ali Bongo is willing to deploy real force, however, in a bid to hold power at all costs.
Though the idea of Gabonese democracy has made some gains since 1990, a prolonged conflict between Bongo and Ping supporters could easily erase those gains. Unlike countries like Ghana, South Africa, Senegal, Kenya and even Nigeria, Gabon’s central African neighbors have all been loathe to adopt truly competitive democracy. In neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, president Denis Sassou Nguesso, president since 1979 (excepting one term between 1992 and 1997) easily won reelection with over 60% of the vote in March after revising the country’s constitution to remove a two-term limit. Few observers have much faith in the elections scheduled for November 27 in central Africa’s largest state, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Joseph Kabila is defying term limits to run for reelection and where leading opposition figure Moise Katumbi has already been sentenced to jail.
It’s hard not to think of Rodrigo Duterte as the Donald Trump of the Philippines.
But in truth, he’s more like Joseph Arpaio — a conservative, tough-on-crime kind of guy willing to do whatever it takes to clean up his city, human rights or the justice system be damned.
At age 71, ‘Rody’ Duterte, who has served for a total of 22 years as mayor of Davao City, has vaulted to a lead in the polls to become the leading presidential choice among voters in the Philippines when they go to the polls on May 9. It’s an election in which Philippines might turn from liberalism to illiberalism not only by electing a Duterte presidency, but also by supporting the restoration of the Marcos family — the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s autocratic ruler from 1965 to 1986, is running for the vice presidency as well.
Duterte is a presidential candidate with tough talk on crime, corruption
Known domestically as the ‘punisher,’ Duterte is not a man to cross. He brags about killing criminals, especially drug dealers, with his own gun, taking extrajudicial justice into his own hands where he sees fit. He openly admitted last November to killing three rapists and kidnappers in Davao City, and he said last week that he would kill his own kids if he found out they were using drugs. Duterte has trekked across the country delivering a fiery nationalist stump speech, often with his fist raised in the air, a variant of which serves as his campaign logo. It’s not a subtle appeal Duterte is making to supporters, who also casually refer to him as ‘Duterte Harry.’
For the United States, the Philippines figures heavily in the growing US strategic and military interest in the Pacific Rim, and the outgoing Obama administration hopes that, in particular, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will draw the Philippines closer to the United States and further, economically speaking, from China. Today, officials in the administrations of both outgoing US president Barack Obama and outgoing Philippine president Benigno ‘NoyNoy’ Aquino III view the growing cooperation as mutually beneficial.
In no uncertain terms, a Duterte victory next Monday in the presidential election would make US-Philippine relations much more difficult.
It’s not a small matter. The Philippines is the world’s 12th-most populous country, with 103 million people and growing.
Davao City, the fourth largest in the country, lies in the far tropical south, and Duterte has presided over its transformation from a hub for communist and left-wing radicals to a case study in law and order. In a country where everyone seems to be worried most about corruption and crime, Duterte and reports of how he’s tamed Davao City over 20 years in power have captured the national zeitgeist. Elected to national office just once (18 years ago) throughout his decades-long career, Duterte can also style himself as an outsider, relatively speaking. Like most politicians in the Philippines, Duterte comes from an influential family — his father was an attorney and a former governor of what used to be Dávao province.
But that’s where the similarity to most Philippine politicians ends.
The New York primaries are over, and it’s clear that they will be yuuuuuge victories for Republican frontrunner and businessman Donald Trump and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Of course, New York is central to both politicians’ careers. Trump built his real estate empire in New York City, and he launched his campaign from his now-iconic Trump Tower last summer. Clinton transitioned from activist first lady to public official when she won a seat in the US senate from New York in November 2000, a position she held through her presidential campaign in 2008.
Neither Clinton nor (especially) Trump will become their party’s presumptive nominee, but their victories most certainly give their opponents little comfort. Primaries next week in Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania do not seem likely to change the narrative.
One silver lining comes for Ohio governor John Kasich, who continues to wage a longshot campaign. He easily won second place last night, though Trump defeated him by a 60% to 25% margin. It will be good for at least some delegates, though, as Kasich took all of New York County, which corresponds to Manhattan.
When will Texas senator Ted Cruz drop out, considering that he’s now playing such a spoiler role to Kasich? (I jest…)
Leaping ahead for a moment, though, it seems now obvious that the real fight for the Republican nomination will take place in California, which will go a long way in setting the stage for a convention where Trump, despite his stunning New York victory, is unlikely to win the 1,237 delegates he needs to clear a first-ballot victory.
California will, therefore, play an outsized role as the final major primary on June 7, just as Iowa and New Hampshire play outsized roles as first-in-the-nation contests.
Earlier this month, voters in five countries across Africa went to the polls in what some global news outlets called ‘Super Sunday’ across the continent.
In three of those countries, the results were foregone conclusions in what no one would describe as truly free and fair elections:
In the Republic of the Congo, known as ‘Congo-Brazzaville,’ because it lies to the west of the far larger Democratic Republic of the Congo to its east, Denis Sassou Nguesso easily won reelection — he’s held power since 1979, barring a short-lived hiatus from 1992 to 1997, after his ousting in a presidential election.
In Niger, a country of over 17 million in west Africa, Mahamadou Issoufou easily won reelection after first taking power in 2011. The opposition had boycotted the vote.
Ali Mohamed Shein easily won reelection as the president of Zanzibar (an autonomous region of Tanzania) after the opposition boycotted a re-run of a flawed election last October.
But in Benin, a sliver of a country nudged between Togo and Nigeria on the west African coast, voters selected someone who might be considered ‘Trumpian’ in his own right — a business tycoon who dominates the country’s most important industry, cotton production, who drives around in imported Jaguars and Porsches and wears designer clothes, a tycoon whose wealth comes in ample part from connections to the right people, a ‘bad boy’ who swept to power with no real government experience.
Patrice Talon, that Beninese businessman, easily won the presidency in a March 20 runoff with 65.37% of the vote to just 34.63% for former prime minister Lionel Zinsou. In the first round on March 8, Zinsou led with 28.44% to just 24.80% for Talon.
It’s not just voters in Spain, Ireland and Greece who are weary of austerity economics.
Voters in Jamaica last month narrowly ejected their prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, giving opposition leader Andrew Holness and the nominally center-right Jamaica Labour Party a razor-thin 32-31 majority in the House of Representatives. Though Jamaican politics has been famous since the 1970s for its polarization, Holness will govern with the narrowest margin in the House since 1949.
What he does with his mandate could matter not only for Jamaica, but the entire Caribbean.
Simpson-Miller, who took power in 2012 and secured yet another IMF bailout in 2013 for the debt-plagued island, marked some success in bringing the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio down from 140% to around 125%. For now, Holness is working with IMF officials, but he won election after pledging to spend more revenues on health care, education and stimulating the economy, part of a generous and populist 10-point plan that will be difficult for him to enact under current fiscal restraints.
The Caribbean’s self-cannibalizing debt crisis
Holness will find himself in a trap all too common in the 21st century Caribbean, where manufacturing, tourism and, in some cases, modest oil production, have not been sufficient to boost economies and incomes. Without higher GDP growth, Holness will face two difficult options. If his government spends too much, he’ll unwind the careful work of his predecessor and send Jamaican debt levels spiraling upwards again. If Holness spends too little, he will alienate the electorate that gave him a majority and that, like Americans and Europeans, are weary of roller-coaster economic uncertainty and a widening inequality gap.
It’s a story that is increasingly familiar across the region and, today, it’s not just Jamaica that is falling into the debt trap. Barbados and Grenada have both marked 60% increases in their debt/GDP ratios in the last 15 years, and the Bahamas, Bermuda and other countries, not typically associated with imprudence, are also struggling with rising debt. Islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe thrive as fossils of France’s colonial empire, thriving due to hefty subsidies from Paris. Trinidad and Tobago, only recently flush with the promise of offshore oil drilling, has watched its expectations plummet with global oil prices. Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, endures a grinding debt default amid prolonged economic misery with little hope that legislative action can fix its economy. Despite years of advanced warning, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the inclination or ability to provide relief from Capitol Hill.
Taken together, the spiraling debt and economic stagnation of the Caribbean represents an overlooked security challenge in the years ahead that China, Russia or even the Middle East might exploit.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the last time Taiwan’s pro-independence party won the presidency, it was something of a disaster.
Sixteen years ago, opposition leader Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) ousted the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), the first time since the Republic of China (ROC) separated from the mainland in 1949.
Chen’s election came not long after Taiwan’s transition in the 1990s from one-party rule under the Kuomintang to emerging democracy. From day one, Chen faced a recalcitrant and wounded Kuomintang determined to throw roadblocks in the new government’s path. If Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) knew little about governing, the Kuomintang knew even less about serving as the loyal opposition.
Most of all, the Kuomintang still controlled Taiwan’s legislature, giving it the tools to frustrate Chen’s agenda.
Taiwan ultimately survived its first real test of democratic transition (and, perhaps most importantly, without causing hostilities with mainland China), but not without a few bruises.
Chen’s eight years in office weren’t without victories. Taiwan formally joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 and Chen’s administration handled the 2003 SARS epidemic adroitly. But Chen’s reelection campaign featured an assassination attempt (that the opposition claims was faked) and legal wrangling over the result in court after the election. Chen’s second term ended in a blaze of corruption charges, and he and his wife were convicted on bribery charges in 2009. Chen was released on medical parole only last January.
The DPP retreated to the opposition after the 2008 elections under the leadership of a soft-spoken policymaker, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who previously headed the Mainland Affairs Council in Chen’s first term from 2000 to 2004. A graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai came to politics after a career as a law professor. Despite losing the 2012 presidential election, Tsai stayed on as the DPP’s leader, and she continued to rebrand the party in the post-Chen era, efforts that have now clearly paid off.
Channeling a wave of popular discontent with the Kuomintang’s growing efforts to tie Taiwan closer to mainland China, Tsai won a landslide victory today in Taiwan’s presidential election, as expected, giving the DPP a second chance to govern the country.
What’s more, the DPP (along with its allies in the ‘Pan-Green coalition’) for the first time in Taiwan’s history will control of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), giving Tsai an unfettered chance for political success.
From a global perspective, the DPP’s victory today, long expected, is important because it could create tensions with mainland China, where leaders have been ‘warning’ Tsai for months not to take a stridently anti-mainland tone to Cross-Strait relations, and state media reports on the Taiwanese election have ranged from patronizing to misogynist to downright insulting.
The DPP, in theoretical terms, still favors a formal declaration of independence from the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC).
But even the more fiercely nationalist ‘deep green’ Chen never attempted a universal declaration during his administration, and no one expects Tsai, who is generally seen as a highly pragmatic and ‘light green’ leader, to do so.
In her victory speech, she emphasized that she will seek to maintain the status quo with Beijing, just as she has worked throughout the campaign to reassure both Beijing and Taiwan’s allies in Washington and elsewhere. But more radical members of her party, newly empowered with a legislative majority, could try to push Tsai into a more confrontational relationship with the PRC.
Tsai faces in PRC president Xi Jinping (习近平) a strong-willed adversary expected to hold office through 2022. Xi has consolidated more power than any mainland leader in decades, and he has consistently disregarded political reforms, instead cracking down on Internet censorship and undermining long-promised free elections in Hong Kong next year. Home rule advocates will be watching the dynamic between Taipei and Beijing more closely than anyone.
Practically, however, fresh tumbles in the Chinese stock markets and a looming sense of broader economic trouble in the wider PRC economy mean that Tsai will spend far more time worrying about Taiwan’s economy than about Cross-Strait strategy. Last week, PRC premier Li Keqiang admitted that the government’s ‘bazooka’ strategy of ever more government stimulus wasn’t working to turn around the fundamental problems with the mainland economy.
Taiwan still has one of the world’s most impressive economies, but it’s linked more closely than ever to the mainland Chinese economy. Fully 27% of Taiwanese exports now go to mainland China and another 13% go to Hong Kong. But GDP growth slowed to just 1% in 2015, and Taiwan risks entering a recession this year if the wider Chinese economy collapses.
In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts.
As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.
The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.
In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.
More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.
On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).
In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.
Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.
Faced with a deep economic slowdown for the first time since the 1970s, the headline news emerging today from the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) at its fifth plenum this week is that it will formally end its one-child policy as the country deals with the more pressing problem of a rapidly aging population.
The meeting, where the Communist Party will design its 13th five-year program for the Chinese economy, is an important moment for ruling officials to chart the path that Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) will carry forward through the end of his first term and a second term to which Xi will presumably be selected in 2017.
Though the Chinese government has been relaxing the terms of the one-child policy for years, today’s step formally ends a policy first enacted in 1978 at a time when China’s economy and demographics were far different than today. In the wake of the post-Mao era, Chinese Communist officials worried that exponential population growth would worsen environmental problems that were becoming apparent four decades ago, spread too thinly resources for educating a new generation of Chinese children and keep the country mired in poverty.
After introducing the one-child policy, China turned to the neighborhood associations that Mao Zedong created throughout the country to enforce the new family planning edict. Almost overnight, local party infrastructure became an essentially intrusive mechanism to keep Chinese families in line and restrict reproductive freedom in the name of collective development. Parents who violated the policy faced monetary fines and, in some cases, forced abortions or even forced abductions of their second child. Throughout China, second children essentially became pariahs, and they faced restrictions on government-funded health care and education.
Farmers in parts of rural China were exempted from the policy, especially when their first child was a daughter. Moreover, ethnic minorities (even in urban areas) were exempt from the policy as well. In 2013, China relaxed the policy even further by allowing parents to have two children so long as both parents themselves were only children. That exemption largely ended the policy, meaning that today’s decision to end the one-child policy is more a formality than a real change. In an era where Xi has cracked down on political dissent and Internet freedom and arguably launched a widespread crackdown on corruption to purge rivals within the ruling Party apparatus, today’s decision is a rare extension of Chinese freedoms.
Gauged by the worries of policymakers in the 1970s, the one-child policy has been a slight success. That’s at least insofar as parents and grandparents dote on a country full of only children, deploying each family’s resources on the educational and developmental progress of a single child. But it’s the country’s breakneck growth, not family planning, that played a far greater role in lifting China out of poverty. Four decades of economic liberalization and international trade, which began under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, is responsible for that. It helped that China didn’t face the kind of turmoil that roiled it during World War II and the civil wars of the 1940s, the rural famine that marked Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the 1950s or the political terror of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
Moreover, what’s become increasingly clear in retrospect is that the one-child policy may have accomplished far more harm than good by accelerating the aging of China’s population and by facilitating a highly imbalanced sex ratio of boys to girls.
The intellectual roots of the one-child policy lie partially in the problematic economic ideas of Thomas Malthus, who argued at the end of the 18th century that rapid population growth would be invariably met with disease, starvation and war. If left unchecked, a doubling of the population would burden the ability of a country’s land to generate enough food to support a demographic explosion. But the human experience over the ensuing two centuries has been exactly the opposite as innovations in agriculture have produced far more food with increasingly less labor. In the year 1800, global population is estimated to have been around one billion; today, it’s 7.4 billion and growing at a time when global poverty is in decline.
Moreover, by the time that China’s policymakers got around to introducing the one-child policy, China’s fertility rate was already rapidly declining, matching global trends in both the developing and the developed world, partially as a result of the widespread availability of medical birth control. The one-child policy, estimated to have prevented between 250 million and 500 million births, had the effect of pushing China’s birthrate away from that of a developing closer to one much more characteristic of a developed country. But as the chart below shows, as based on UN data, China’s birthrate had already slowed long before the one-child policy took hold.
Had China done nothing, fertility rates would have naturally continued to decline — and all without expending the costly efforts to restrict freedom in such an intimate and fundamental way.
For all the costs of enforcing the most restrictive family planning in world history, China doesn’t have much to show as a result.
China’s median age (today) is 36.7 — that’s akin to Iceland and just slightly younger than the United States (37.6), Australia (38.3) and Russia (38.9). The United Nations estimates that by 2025, China’s median age will be essentially the same as the US median age and, thereafter, China’s median age will be ever older.
As its neighbors South Korea (40.2) and Japan (46.1) have aged, however, economic growth has slowed. That might be fine for South Korea and Japan, because they now both enjoy income levels roughly equivalent to developed countries. China, though it’s well on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy, has only just reached middle-income status. So the one-child policy might have put China on a slightly less fertile trajectory — but only slightly.
With economic uncertainty looming, it seems likely that the era of residual double-digit GDP growth in China is coming to an end. So while China has ‘caught up’ on aging, it hasn’t quite caught up on income levels and per-capita GDP. Even when China transcends its current economic gloom (and it will), it will be more difficult for it to play catch-up with an aging population and fewer working-age people in the labor market. Moreover, the low-hanging fruit of the past three decades — building the infrastructure (hospitals, bridges, schools, entire towns and cities) for a rapidly modernizing country — will be increasingly out of reach for economic planners.
Exacerbating China’s demographic woes is one of the world’s most lopsided sex ratios — only 100 women for every 112 men. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a sex ratio that tilts naturally at around 1.01 in favor of males. But given traditional cultural preferences for males, more Chinese families have opted to ensure that the single child permitted to them is male and not female. In a country of 1.38 billion people, that means that tens of millions of Chinese men have had and, for the foreseeable future will have, only negligible chances for marriage or starting their own families. At a time when economic misery is rising in China, that’s not particularly good news for ruling Party officials who could struggle to contain political and social anger in the event of a prolonged economic slump.