SIGNAL: America First meets the world, useful fictions in international politics, India’s budget

Eurasia Live
17 February 2017
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This week, Donald Trump's foreign policy unfolds around the world, we generally ignore that crazy press conference, and useful fictions in global politics are ranked. Here we go!

The Noise This Week

As it starts to take shape, Trump's America First foreign policy is delivering surprises in some areas and continuity in others. In Asia, where candidate Trump promised night-and-day changes from Barack Obama's worldview, President Trump is delivering shades of grey. After throwing a bomb into U.S.-China relations over Taiwan, Trump quickly backed down and reaffirmed the one-China policy. His public reaction to North Korea's provocative missile test was the model of restraint. And after loudly insisting that Asian allies would need to pay more for U.S. defense commitments, the question didn't come up during Trump's weekend summit with the Japanese prime minister. If Trump put his hand in Shinzo Abe's pocket last weekend, no one at Mar-a-Lago saw it. (They certainly saw everything else.)
Russia, meanwhile, is testing Trump's intentions, which seem to change by the day in relation to Moscow. Trump equivocated about the idea of a “reset” during his press conference this week, and the firing of Michael Flynn removes one pro-Russia voice in the administration. But he was hardly the only one. From Russia's side, the escalation of the war in Ukraine and Moscow's deployment of a new cruise missile in contravention of treaty requirements are good signs that what Vladimir Putin wants is less a healthy cooperative partnership with the U.S. than an open field of influence where Moscow can pursue its interests unchecked. Even on issues such as Syria, where some kind of anti-ISIS cooperation seems at least conceivable, there's good reason for caution. Just look to Russia's complicated relationship with Turkey. Vladimir Putin had to intervene personally this week after Russian forces accidentally bombed their Turkish allies. Would a joint U.S.-Russian effort to retake Raqqa move any more smoothly?

This big question mark on U.S.-Russia relations will only feed anxiety in Europe, where Trump is making good on his pledge to revisit his commitment to the continent if other NATO members don't pay up. That's not in itself stark departure from past U.S. policy, which also insisted on increased defense spending from NATO allies, if more gently. But combine the possibility of a reset in U.S.-Russia relations with Defense Secretary James Mattis' message that the U.S. could pull back on NATO if more members don't pay, and this threat starts to take on a much sharper edge. As one European diplomat told the Washington post, “Pardon my French, but we got the message: Pay up or be f — -ed.”
The America First tour also visited Latin America this week, with the designation of Venezuela's vice president as a drug kingpin. The decision is a good reminder that America First is primarily unilateralist, not isolationist. It essentially reverses an Obama-era policy to stay out of Venezuelan affairs while a Vatican-backed dialogue between the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro's government played out. At a minimum, it gives Maduro yet another reason to rally his supporters against American imperialism, and if the pace of his social media posts is any indication, we could well see a new front opened in the Twitter wars. (Try to contain your excitement.)
In the Middle East, the U.S. is pinning medals on Saudis and rolling out the red carpet for the Israeli Prime Minister again. That flavor of America First, at least, is a familiar one.

Self-Promotion Interlude: Self-Promotion Interlude: Watch Eurasia Group's resident limericist Karthik Sankaran talk about the new era for the U.S. Federal Reserve.


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See Us Live: Ian Bremmer speaks at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, February 21. Watch the live stream.

Ranked: Useful Fictions in International Politics

The word “Lie” gets thrown around a lot these days. But not all lies are bad. In fact, the normal ebb and flow of international politics relies on a few agreed-upon falsehoods. Here are some of the areas where agreeing to disagree has made things run a little smoother.

5. Turkey's EU accession process. Turkey has been in formal negotiations to join the European Union since 2005, with informal discussions going back much further. Those talks are going nowhere fast. The European Parliament took a non-binding vote last year to freeze talks, and Austria has openly questioned the process. No one in the EU seems particularly keen to expand the union's neighbors to include Syria and Iraq. Still, both the EU and Turkey find the idea of the negotiations useful. As EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini put it bluntly, were the membership talks to formally end, “Europe would lose an important channel for dialogue and leverage with Turkey.” Ankara, for its part, wants greater economic integration of some kind or another, and the slow process gives Turkey its own leverage in Europe. There are certainly parties on both sides that want the relationship to be consummated. But how many couples who have been engaged for a dozen years actually go on to get married?
4. New Zealand's nuclear-free zone. Late last year, the USS Sampson became the first American warship to visit New Zealand in more than 30 years, ending a long-running dispute over America's intentional ambiguity regarding its nuclear arsenal. The U.S. will not confirm or deny which of its ships have nuclear capabilities, and New Zealand law bans ships that are nuclear-powered or carry nuclear arms. Many American warships are neither, of course, but New Zealand politicians long interpreted the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity to mean that any ship could be nuclear, and thus all were barred. Now, in a period of warmer ties, New Zealand has chosen to end the dispute by essentially continuing the fiction. The U.S. still does not divulge its nuclear capabilities, but New Zealand has agreed to allow in ships that are obviously nuclear-free, without forcing the U.S. to admit it. Or, to only slightly paraphrase former Prime Minister John Key, they agreed to disagree.
3. FYROM. Another great area of agreement to disagree is over the state north of Greece that has referred to itself since the breakup of Yugoslavia as the Republic of Macedonia. The Greeks object strenuously to the use of a name they see as part of their national heritage. Their objection is so strenuous that it periodically leads to government crises in Athens, including one last year in which the Greek migration minister was urged to resign after accidentally using the name “Macedonia.” As a member of the EU and NATO, which both operate on consensus, the Greeks have great power over the future of their neighbor, which would like to join both. To continue to operate, a fudge has been grudgingly agreed to in forums like the U.N. — refer to the country as the “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” until the two parties come to agreement. That modus vivendi, has, at least, been more productive than the proposal by U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who felt it helpful to suggest this month that Macedonia be disbanded altogether as a country. That, no one agrees on. 
2. Israel's nukes. The worst-kept secret in international security is, famously, the fact that Israel has operated a nuclear weapons program since the late 1960s. And yet, neither the U.S. nor Israel will fess up. The main rationale is nonproliferation. Although Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. has, and it has gone to great lengths to ensure that other nations don't acquire nuclear weapons. Acknowledging a nuclear program in the Middle East would arguably undermine that effort, while declining to do so has the ancillary benefit of ensuring that Israel can't conduct nuclear tests. But it's unclear how beneficial Israel's strategic ambiguity really is. A leaked email last year showed former Secretary of State Colin Powell casually discussing that the U.S. knows that Iran knows that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons pointed at Tehran. Everybody knows.
1. The One-China Policy. The foundation of the modern relationship between the U.S. and China is one big fudge. China sees the breakaway province of Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory. The U.S. is committed to helping defend Taiwan, which includes providing arms. Nonetheless, Washington and Beijing have managed to keep doing business by agreeing to pretend to see eye-to-eye, even when they don't. The U.S. recognizes the People's Republic of China diplomatically, and tends to keep the Taiwanese at arm's length (a billion or two in defense sales notwithstanding). This went smoothly until Trump decided to pull back the curtain on the one-China policy by speaking directly to Taiwan's leader in November. As president, however, Trump has apparently found that swallowing the truth is not so easy. After being frozen out by Xi Jinping, Trump agreed to honor to the one-China policy after all. In politics, sometimes fiction is more useful than truth.

Watch the World in 60 Seconds from Cape Town.

Indian Aside
Eurasia Group's Shailesh Kumar on why Prime Minster Narendra Modi's budget this year lacks fireworks.
For the sake of India's economy, budgets should lack fireworks. In India's bygone era of socialist policies, centrally planned economy, and minimal acceptance for private sector activity, a budget was the only outlet for all industrial activity and growth. It has also been used as a vessel for political opportunism, like giveaways to the poor ahead of elections. 
But as India increasingly liberalizes, there should be less focus on a budget, and correspondingly, less capacity to create fireworks. If budgets continue to have oversized importance, it gives the central government too much weight in economic matters. For India to truly liberalize, government and budgets need to reduce their foot print on the economy.

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Hard Numbers

52 percent of companies that reported earnings through early February mentioned the Trump administration. Markets, meet politics.
9 cardinals issued a statement of support for Pope Francis after a series of public critiques, including a fake electronic edition of the Vatican's daily newspaper, called into question some of his policy positions.
2 times more Filipinos have been killed in the first six months of Rodrigo Duterte's presidency than during the decade-long period of martial law under former President Ferdinand Marcos.
10 Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan and the Russian Caucasus have launched a jihadi military consultancy. Eurasia Group will graciously cede them that corner of the politics consulting market.
172 Cuban nationals have been held in detention since the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy was halted in the final days of the Obama administration as an attempt to solidify the rapprochement between the two nations. 
97 percent of the African Union's programs are funded by external sources. This is a problem when most countries aren't paying their dues.
100% of Venezuela's governors have outlived their constitutionally mandated terms. That's not to mention six who weren't even elected.

Words of Wisdom

“Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters. This is the trans-border empire of George Soros, with tons of money and international heavy artillery.”

– Hungarian Prime Minister and former Soros scholarship recipient Viktor Orban, on the shadowy forces working to infiltrate his country.

Signal is written by Matt Peterson (@mattbpete) with editorial support from Gabe Lipton (@gflipton). Don't like what you read? Feel free to yell at us on Twitter or just reply to this email.