A Korus Line

A Korus Line

The Trump administration delivered its first major achievement on the trade front last week — reaching a preliminary agreement with South Korea to renegotiate portions of the KORUS free trade deal in return for granting it exemptions to new US steel tariffs. Fellow Signalista @gflipton assesses how big a win this actually was, or wasn’t.


On the economic front, the revisions make only a Kafkaesque contribution to President Trump’s stated goal of reducing America’s bilateral trade deficit with Korea, which is concentrated almost entirely in the auto sector. The agreement loosens Korean regulations on US exports that don’t currently apply and extends US tariffs on vehicles that Korea doesn’t currently make. The changes could certainly affect future investment decisions by Korean and US firms, but it would take a lot to change South Koreans’ strong preference for German and Japanese cars.

On the domestic political front, however, Trump can claim that he’s delivered on his core campaign promise to renegotiate the “terrible, no good, very bad” trade deals of his predecessors and use the renegotiation to shore up support among the blue-collar base that carried him to the White House. He can even present the 30% reduction in Korean steel exports as a win to steel country, though early indications on the success of this strategy are mixed. Keep an eye on auto country in November.

On the international front, Trump has shown that by playing a tough, zero-sum game he can extract defined economic concessions from allies. That said, KORUS was a comparatively simple renegotiation, affecting a small number of sectors with clear objectives. What’s more, Seoul and Washington had a mutual incentive to reach a deal ahead of the upcoming summits that each will hold with Pyongyang.

Other pending US trade negotiations — most importantly, with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA and with China — will be much more complex, involving much larger players with stronger cards of their own to play. KORUS went well enough, but can Trump demonstrate a similar Art of the Deal on those much larger canvasses?

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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