The week in non-impeachment news

Dec 14 2019

If you’re the kind of person who likes to watch movies even when you know how they’ll end, you may have spent much of the past week focused on impeachment proceedings (which—in case you’ve managed to avoid the plot spoilers so far—are sure to end in President Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, with his base having been energized in the meanwhile). Personally, I hate watching movies when I know how they’ll end—especially this one! So I’m well positioned to tell you what’s been going on in the world this week other than impeachment. 

And a lot has been going on. Unfortunately, much of it, from the vantage point of my own ideology, has been bad. If you, too, find this summary of the week’s big events a bit dispiriting, just remember this. OK, here goes:

A kinder, gentler Trump: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won re-election, as his Conservative party routed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. This apparently means that Brexit will happen next month, though the terms of the post-Brexit economic relationship between Britain and Europe won’t be worked out until long thereafter. Also, Britain may get smaller. The Conservatives lost big in mainly anti-Brexit Scotland, which may now seek a second referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom. And, for the first time, most members of parliament from Northern Ireland favor ditching the UK for union with Ireland.

A not much kinder, not much gentler Trump: Narendra Modi, the ethno-nationalist Prime Minister of India, hailed his parliament’s passage of a bill that would create a path to citizenship for migrants from nearby countries—with the notable exception of migrants who are Muslim. 

New campus speech code: President Trump issued an executive order that allows the government to punish colleges for permitting the expression of certain kinds of criticism of Israel. The “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism” adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which deems anti-Semitic several kinds of extreme criticisms of Israel, such as calling the “existence of a state of Israel a racist endeavor” or “requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” or “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” So would colleges lose federal funding if, for example, they didn’t discipline a student who said during a panel discussion that Israeli soldiers use “Gestapo tactics” against West Bank Palestinians? I guess we’ll find out. 

The order was welcomed by the Anti-Defamation League and some conservative Jewish groups but not by the ACLU or progressive Jewish groups. A number of Jews objected to the order’s implication that Jews are a national or racial, not just a religious, group. (The order grounds its authority in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and Title VI bars discrimination against national and racial groups but not religious groups.) As various commentators pointed out, the idea that Jews are a racial or national group has often been deployed by anti-Semites (in, for example, attributing to all Jews an allegiance to Israel). 

Big brother: The Justice Department’s Inspector General said that the FBI’s investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election was deeply deficient, particularly in its use of misleadingly selective information to secure wiretapping warrants. This in turn raised questions about the hundreds of wiretaps that are authorized each year via the secretive FISA courts (which virtually never deny a surveillance application from the government). The IG didn’t find that, as President Trump had claimed, the FBI lacked a sound basis to launch its investigation in the first place—but Attorney General William Barr still hopes to establish as much via a second investigation he has authorized. 

Global governance sabotaged: Trump finally succeeded in paralyzing the World Trade Organization’s adjudicatory mechanism, which decides which countries have violated trade rules and authorizes punitive sanctions against them. Trump has been ritually blocking the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appellate panel for years, and this week mandatory retirements reduced the number of judges left on the panel below the minimum of three. So any country that doesn’t like a ruling issued by a lower-level WTO panel can just file an appeal and put the case in a limbo that will last until…apparently until there’s a new US president. 

Some people on the left approved of Trump’s hobbling of the WTO, noting that its adjudicatory process has sometimes deemed progressive national laws unfair impediments to trade. Which it indeed has. But I think in the long run the best way to serve progressive values amid rapidly globalizing capitalism is to have meaningful transnational governance—especially in the realms of labor and environmental regulation—and you can’t do that without strong bodies of global governance. Of course, this scenario assumes that transnational trade agreements are capable of evolving in a leftward direction. Well, as it happens, this week brought an example, or at least a partial example, of that:  

NAFTA 2.0: Congress and the White House reached a deal that ensures passage of Trump’s renegotiated version of NAFTA. The new version isn’t radically different from the old NAFTA, and by progressive lights it has problems—notably a continued shortage of regulations dealing with climate change and other environmental issues. But it does have at least one interesting innovation: It requires that at least 40 percent of the content of cars that trade freely within North America be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour. The idea is that Mexican factories can either raise wages or watch jobs migrate north. Whether or not the $16 threshold is well calibrated, this is the kind of regulation that could soften the blow of globalization on American workers without resorting to unilateral trade barriers, which risk mutually destructive trade wars. So it’s important as a precedent, and as an example that bodies of global governance can, over time, evolve ideologically. 

How the mighty have fallen: Aung San Suu Kyi, the prime minister of Myanmar who was once a hero of human rights activists, told the International Court of Justice that her military hadn’t committed genocide against Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslim population. Without commenting on whether the extensively documented mass executions, rapes, village burnings, and other atrocities had taken place, or what role they had played in prompting hundreds of thousands of Muslims to flee her country, she said that her military had no “genocidal intent,” and had been responding to attacks by militants. Myanmar, she said, will handle the punishment of any soldiers who may have used “disproportionate force.”   

Star Wars: Congress authorized the creation of a Space Force, a new branch of the military championed by Trump in the face of Pentagon skepticism. In last week’s newsletter I critically assessed Trump’s aspiration to preserve American “dominance” of outer space.  

On a more positive note: The European Space Agency announced plans for humankind’s first ever removal from outer space of junk it has left there. And a week earlier ESA had said it would collaborate with NASA in an asteroid diversion mission that would test our ability to nudge asteroids headed toward Planet Earth onto a less destructive path.

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