Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Embrace, You Millions!
Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy, popularized by its use in Ludvig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, contains the line “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” Conventionally, it is translated into English as “You millions, I embrace you.” But I beg to differ with this interpretation; there is no “I” (“ich”) in the German and the phrase is in passive voice: “be embraced,” not “I embrace.” Be embraced by whom, then? By Schiller? Well, theoretically, yes; at around one minute per hug and working the typical 40-hour work week, it would take Schiller about a decade just to get through the first million. But it seems highly doubtful that this is what old Friedrich was suggesting. It seems quite obvious to me that what me meant was “Embrace each other, you millions!”
I am unsure of the efficacy of odes in persuading people to embrace, but I do have a single data point which indicates that dropping one’s pants can be quite efficacious. And now I appear to have found another.
Recent actions taken by the US in the international space seem to me, metaphorically speaking, functionally equivalent to dropping one’s pants in public. And, surely enough, it is causing previously hostile or aloof nations to spontaneously embrace, finding common cause in avoiding this new source of planetary-scale embarrassment. It remains to be seen whether the US will recognize the error of its ways, or whether it will forever remain standing there wailing with its figurative pants around its figurative ankles.
Last week, while moderating the plenary session at the St. Petersburg World Economic Forum, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News John Micklethwait said this: “I think the coming together is a tribute to Mr. Putin’s energy and power of persuasion. But it may also just be a sign of Donald Trump’s unique ability to bring people together… without him.” (Laughter. Applause.) Indeed, thanks to Trump’s tireless efforts to mess things up, things said at that meeting would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. French president Macron stated that, of course, Russia is part of Europe, and kept repeating the word “sovereign” with reference to France (a jab in the direction of Germany, France’s main competitor within the EU, which has remained under US military occupation ever since World War II). Of course, Macron said, France does have some obligations… (meaning to US/NATO) to which Putin quickly responded, “No need to worry, we can help you with that.” Indeed, Russia already secures one-eighth of the Earth’s landmass. Now that it is again part of Europe, expanding that function to secure the rest of Europe as well would provide good economies of scale for all involved.
Trump has done a lot to bring the rest of the world closer together, mostly by acting like a moron and by surrounding him with morons. Trump initially chose Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, giving the top diplomatic post to someone who isn’t a diplomat. Then Tillerson does something moronic: he calls Trump a “moron” at a Pentagon meeting. If he weren't a moron, he would have known that calling a moron a moron just makes the moron mad. Then White House chief of staff John Kelly does one better and says that Tillerson calling Trump a “moron” is “total bullshit.” How colorful! And then Tillerson gets fired (of course!) and replaced with CIA head Mike Pompeo (who is also not a diplomat) and at the CIA Pompeo gets replaced by the torturer extraordinaire Gina Haspel, who can’t travel outside the country for fear of being arrested and charged with war crimes. In the meantime, Trump appoints a fellow-moron by the name of John Bolton to the National Security Council. Bolton is proud of his work in promoting the Iraq war, would no doubt do it all again, nonexistent weapons of mass destruction notwithstanding, and is now itching to start an equally “successful” war with Iran. Another prime specimen is Nikki Haley, whose frozen, deer-in-the-headlights stare, strange scowl and delusional utterances are suggestive of an intimate acquaintance with psychopharmacology. Trump pulled her off her South Carolina psycho farm and sent her to the UN Security Council in New York; a moronic move, that! Most recently, Haley has done everything possible to make sure that the already toxic move of the US embassy to Jerusalem would go off as embarrassingly as possible.
The moronic nature of the Trump administration definitely passes the duck test—it both looks and quacks like a bunch of morons. But to really let the point sink in, we have to look at what they have accomplished. Most notably, Tempestuous Trump is both a flipper and a flopper. He threatens North Korea with absolute, total destruction (flip!) even though North Korea, if attacked, would obliterate South Korea with conventional weapons and possibly lob a nuclear missile or two at Japan, thus invalidating US security guarantees given to these two US allies. Then, seeing a sudden rapprochement between North and South Korea, he decides to hold a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whom he previously insulted in a childish manner—“rocket man,” etc. Flop! Then a few more moronic things happen: Vice Moron Mike Pence threatens North Korea with a “Libya scenario” (Libya voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons program, only to then be attacked and destroyed). Then a senior North Korean official calls this “stupid.” This caused Trump to flip and cancel the summit. And then he flopped and now the summit is back on.
But why on God’s Earth would the North Koreans want to make a deal with Trump? You see, in the meantime, Trump decided to renege on US treaty obligations under the Iran nuclear deal, which was Barack Obama’s only major foreign policy achievement. Mike Pompeo then added insult to injury by voicing twelve impossible demands: if Iran complied, the deal might be saved. Pompeo is not a diplomat, so he wouldn’t know this, but the only time it is reasonable to voice demands in this manner and expect a positive answer is when negotiating terms of surrender, but that requires a military victory first. No victory—no surrender—no demands. Doing so anyway, and to a nation that could easily shut down the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes 20% of the world's traded oil, thereby blowing up your own economy, is quite moronic. In any case, why would Kim Jong Un be willing to make any sort of deal with Trump now that the US has shown itself incapable of honoring the terms of treaties to which it is a signatory?
But that’s not all. To really finish off his country’s reputation as a worthwhile negotiating partner, the Trump administration has threatened to sanction anyone who does business with Iran, causing much consternation within the European Union, which depends on Iranian oil exports. Such sanctions, which are essentially extraterritorial claims that encroach on other nations’ sovereignty, could be a bit of a temporary headache for transnational corporations that were starting to do business with Iran. Boeing, for instance, stands to lose a lot of aircraft sales. The reason the headache is temporary is that there is a standard procedure for circumventing such sanctions. First, the corporation that wants to do business with Iran creates an affiliate in some third nation, such as Russia or China. That affiliate, which is still partially under US jurisdiction, then creates a local affiliate that is entirely under Russian or Chinese jurisdiction and is free to do business with Iran.
There is really just one remaining problem, which is that something like 80% of all international trade is still conducted in US dollars. But this too is changing rapidly: Russia and China, Russia and Iran and China and Iran have already eliminated the US dollar in their dealings. And now the EU is planning to pay for Iranian oil using the Euro. In the meantime, China’s recently launched gold-backed PetroYuan futures are gobbling up market share from US dollar-denominated oil futures. The days of the petrodollar seem numbered, along with the ability of the US to print dollars and generate dollar-denominated debt with wild abandon, exporting inflation while importing everything it needs at a discount. The ability of the US to impose unilateral sanctions will vanish as well; instead of coercing others, such sanctions will only serve to isolate the US.
In the meantime, it would be fun to watch if Trump actually meets with Kim Jong Un, shakes his hand… and is then presented with a list of non-negotiable demands: halt all joint military exercises with South Korea; turn over command of the South Korean military back to South Korea; withdraw all US military personnel and weapons from South Korea, Japan, Okinawa and Guam; sign a treaty with Russia and China guaranteeing North Korea’s security; allow North Korea to maintain a small nuclear deterrent just in case the US decides to renege on its treaty obligations like it just did with Iran; and, of course, cancel all sanctions.
A massive shift has already occurred: much of the world has decided that the US is no longer a worthwhile negotiating partner. If you want to sign deals, fly to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Beijing or Shanghai. And if you want to laugh at a bunch of flip-flopping fools, fly to Washington.