Biden’s Foreign Policy Begins at Home

Joe Biden
Joe Biden makes his first speech as president from the West Front of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, January 20 (DoD/Carlos M. Vazquez II)

The appointment of Jake Sullivan as Joe Biden’s national security advisor is a strong hint that the new president’s focus on domestic issues — COVID-19, the economy, racial equity — will influence American foreign policy in the next four years.

While at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace during the Trump Administration, Sullivan co-authored a report that argued American foreign policy had failed the American middle class. As Biden’s closest foreign-policy advisor, he can push for the return to Obama-style multilateralism, but this time with a laser focus on the interests of middle America.

Here’s what that could mean for the top items on Biden’s foreign-policy agenda: Afghanistan, China and Europe. Read more “Biden’s Foreign Policy Begins at Home”

Far Right Comes to Sánchez’ Rescue in Spain

Santiago Abascal
Spanish Vox party leader Santiago Abascal gives a speech in Valencia, February 22, 2018 (Vox España)

Sometimes bad people do good things. Spain’s neo-Francoist party Vox (Voice) has given Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez a majority for his plan to spend Spain’s €140 billion share of the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund.

Vox had criticized the plan for its “opaque” oversight during a debate in Congress, but when it became clear the conservative People’s Party (PP) would vote against it, the far right spied an opportunity.

“We regret that in the worst moment of these 42 years of democracy, PP is not the opposition but the absolute destruction,” a Vox spokesman thundered.

That’s a little rich coming from a party that wants to reverse Spain’s democratization in important ways, including by abolishing regional autonomies, teaching a more Franco-friendly version of twentieth-century history in middle schools and weakening women’s rights.

But it is also an example of how multiparty democracy can make a country more governable. Read more “Far Right Comes to Sánchez’ Rescue in Spain”

Scotland Is a Country!

Scotland flag
The flag of Scotland (Paul Morgan)

My most recent article about Scottish independence, from last summer, got more than a hundred angry replies on Twitter today.

Not a lot of substantive comments, unfortunately, although I had good discussions with those Scots who argued I had overstated the risks of dissolution and underestimated the opportunities.

No, nearly all replies hounded me for describing Scotland as a “region” and not a “country”, which I know it is.

The reason I use “country” as well as “region” is that Scotland’s constitutional status — a country within a country — can be confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with the UK. That’s all. I meant no offense. Read more “Scotland Is a Country!”

Butter on Their Heads

Wopke Hoekstra
Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra in The Hague, September 15, 2020 (Ministerie van Financiën/Martijn Beekman)

There’s a Dutch expression for hypocrisy that doesn’t have a direct translation in English: you accuse someone of having “butter on their head”. It means they better avoid the heat lest it stream down their face.

Party leaders Wopke Hoekstra of the Christian Democrats and Lilianne Ploumen of Labor stepped into the heat on Saturday, when they addressed their respective party congresses (held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic). It wasn’t long before the butter on their heads started to melt.

Both accused Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in power for ten years, of dismantling the Dutch welfare state.

Just one problem: their parties have each governed with Rutte for five of the last ten years. Read more “Butter on Their Heads”

America Needs a de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle
French president Charles de Gaulle gives a speech in Montréal, Canada, July 24, 1967 (Archives de Montréal)

Charles de Gaulle’s great achievement, to paraphrase his British biographer, Julian Jackson, was that he reconciled the French left to patriotism and the French right to democracy.

The history of France since 1789 has been a consistent struggle between a universalist left and the conservative right; between republic and monarchy; the Enlightenment and Catholicism; labor and capital; Paris and La France profonde.

History hasn’t ended. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen embody opposite visions of France today. But de Gaulle narrowed the divide and helped Frenchmen and -women think of each other as opponents rather than enemies.

That America could use a whiff of Gaullism isn’t my idea. Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist of The New York Times, called for an American de Gaulle two years ago.

I suspect he envisaged an authority figure on the right. Instead we have Joe Biden. Can he play the same role? Read more “America Needs a de Gaulle”

Merkel’s Party Doesn’t Need More Ideology

Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel attends the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 25, 2019 (Bundesregierung)

Saturday’s election for the leadership of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is also a debate over the future identity of the party.

Friedrich Merz, the darling of the right, would arrest Angela Merkel’s twenty-year slide to the center and take the fight to the far right with small-government and law-and-order policies.

Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Norbert Röttgen, a parliamentarian, fear Merz would throw away Merkel’s gains with younger and women voters. They argue for continuity (critics might say muddling through), with Röttgen proposing a slightly more modernizing program.

Waiting in the wings are Jens Spahn, the ambitious health minister, and Markus Söder, the prime minister of Bavaria. Neither man is in the running for the party leadership, but they may yet hope to be nominated for the chancellorship. Spahn is a younger version of Merz, Söder a more solid version of Laschet. Read more “Merkel’s Party Doesn’t Need More Ideology”

Dutch Government Falls Over Child Benefits Scandal

Mark Rutte
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte addresses parliament in The Hague, September 17, 2020 (Tweede Kamer)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has tendered his government’s resignation to King Willem-Alexander.

With only two months to go before elections, and the government remaining in a caretaker capacity to manage the coronavirus crisis, the resignation is largely symbolic.

But smaller parties in Rutte’s coalition felt they had to take responsibility for what an inquiry described as an “unprecedented injustice” in the tax service, which wrongly accused more than 20,000 families of fraud.

Lodewijk Asscher, who was the responsible minister in charge of social affairs in the last government, stepped down as leader of the now-opposition Labor Party on Thursday. Read more “Dutch Government Falls Over Child Benefits Scandal”

Biden Plans $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Rescue Program

United States Capitol
Workers drape a flag from the facade of the United States Capitol in Washington DC for Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, January 9 (Victoria Pickering)

Joe Biden is planning to ask Congress for $1.9 trillion in the first weeks of his presidency to cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Matthew Yglesias and Punchbowl News, a new Capitol Hill-focused newsletter, have the details:

  • $400 billion for health, including $50 billion for testing, $30 billion for protective gear and $20 billion for vaccinations.
  • Hire 100,000 public health workers.
  • A mandatory paid sick leave program.
  • $1,400 cheques to all Americans on top of the $600 cheques sent in December.
  • Extend federal unemployment benefits at $400 per week.
  • Extend the eviction moratorium.
  • $30 billion in rental assistance.
  • Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
  • Raise the child tax credit to as much $3,600 per year for families with young children.
  • $350 billion in financial relief for local, tribal and state governments. Read more “Biden Plans $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Rescue Program”

German Christian Democrats to Elect Merkel’s Successor

Friedrich Merz
Friedrich Merz, then chairman of the Supervisory Board of BlackRock Germany, attends a bankers conference in Berlin, April 5, 2017 (Bankenverband)

1,001 party delegates will elect the next leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a digital congress on Saturday.

The winner will succeed Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the defense minister, who succeeded Angela Merkel in 2018. Merkel stepped down as party leader, but not chancellor, that year. Kramp-Karrenbauer quit two years later. She never approached Merkel’s popularity in the polls, nor her authority in the party.

Merkel’s approval rating is approaching 90 percent, but she is not seeking a fifth term. Whoever is elected CDU leader on Saturday will be the party’s presumptive chancellor candidate for the election in September (the Christian Democrats are polling at 35-37 percent), but that is not a given. Read more “German Christian Democrats to Elect Merkel’s Successor”