It's Willis with your Friday edition of Signal. Today, we'll detail what Trump vs. Bolton says about the future of US foreign policy, warn you off Chinese pork, raid the Russian opposition, and revisit the work of a great American artist.
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For a president gearing up for a fierce re-election fight next year, President Trump has a lot to worry about. Democrats are now taking more of the US political spotlight. The latest opinion polls don't look good for him. There are signs that the strong US economy, Trump's top selling point, may begin to wobble.
And for US foreign policy, an area where US presidents have a lot of leeway, Trump knows he needs to make some deals, and fast.
This is the backdrop for Washington's big news of the week: Trump's firing of national security advisor John Bolton. Media debate this week has centered on whether Trump has smartly saved America from a warmonger or whether dismissing a knowledgeable foreign policy hand who was willing to challenge the president opens the way to a much more erratic policy driven by Trump alone.
But let's look instead at the central point of philosophical difference between the two men and what that tells us about what comes next for US foreign policy. Trump's choices to date suggest that he believes he can make a good deal with anyone, given the right mix of carrots and sticks. Bolton's history suggests he's convinced that when the other side believes its core interests are at stake, substantive deals aren't possible and force becomes necessary.
Cases in point:
In Afghanistan, the president wants to end an 18-year war, the longest in US history. Bolton reportedly argued against Trump's recent plan to talk with the Taliban.
Trump's view is that the war can't end unless Washington strikes a deal with the Taliban, which still controls a big percentage of Afghan territory. Bolton's is that the Taliban isn't trustworthy, and there's no deal to be had that would prevent a re-emergence of Afghanistan as a terrorist training ground.
On Iran, Trump wants to sit down with President Hassan Rouhani in New York later this month and has signaled a willingness to ease sanctions on Iran. Bolton, who authored an op-ed in The New York Times in 2015 under the headline, "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran," reportedly opposes both these ideas.
Trump will say the purpose of pressure on Iran is to secure a better deal than the one Barack Obama signed in 2015. Bolton will counter that it's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not President Rouhani, who will decide Iran's nuclear policy, and that any relief of pressure on Iran will provide its leaders time to restart the nuclear program.
On North Korea, Trump believes that talking with Kim Jong-un is smarter than pushing him toward the testing of missiles that might reach the US mainland. Bolton will argue that Kim will never willingly surrender his nuclear weapons, and that Kim is not to be trusted.
On Venezuela, Trump can insist that the US should secure a deal with President Nicolas Maduro's friends in Moscow that removes Maduro from power. Bolton can claim that Russia won't bargain in good faith and that only maximum pressure on Venezuela's economy (and maybe the credible threat of regime change) can force Venezuela's military to oust Maduro.
The bottom line: The next year may prove that, on all these important subjects, both men are correct. Trump is right that he can't hope to make peace without offering the other side something of substance. But if the enemy isn't serious about giving Trump what he wants most, as Bolton warns, a hollow deal might boost Trump politically but won't serve US interests.
This is the main reason that President Trump may be forced to stand before voters next November without a grand bargain to sell.
Chinese Pigs – Beyond a trade war with the US and unrest in Hong Kong, now Chinese officials are wrestling with an even more basic political problem. Pork is the favorite meat for many of China's 1.4 billion people, and some analysts treat pork consumption as an important indicator of the financial well-being of China's middle class. A serious outbreak of African Swine Flu is expected to push pork prices 70 percent higher over the second half of this year, which will hit ordinary Chinese pockets hard. By some estimates, half of China pigs have been culled, but there are also reports that some farmers have avoided the expense of slaughtering infected pigs, raising fears that the disease will continue to spread. The central government takes this problem seriously enough to call on local officials to boost large-scale hog farming. So far, China's "Year of the Pig" is just not going well.
Japan and its Neighbors – Japan may soon mix bad blood with toxic water. The Fukushima nuclear power plant, partly destroyed by a tsunami in 2011, will run out of space to store its contaminated water in the next three years, and Japanese authorities are reportedly considering a plan to dump the water into the Pacific Ocean. Both the South and North Korean governments are incensed by the idea, which they say would poison their seafood industries. Seoul has already summoned a Japanese embassy official over the issue. Japan and South Korea have already cut back trade and intelligence ties over Seoul's insistence that Tokyo atone for Japanese actions during its early 20th century occupation of Korea.
Volfefe - Since taking office, President Trump has tweeted more than 10,000 times, and the investment bank Morgan Stanley believes these messages can help investors make money. Introducing Volfefe, a portmanteau that combines the word "volatility" with the infamous "covfefe," a nonsense word Trump (accidentally?) tweeted late one night in May 2017. "The subject of these tweets," the bank writes, "has increasingly turned toward market-moving topics, most prominently trade and monetary policy. And we find strong evidence that tweets have increasingly moved US rates markets immediately after publication." One man's post-midnight fat-finger typing is another man's goldmine. "Bully" pulpit indeed.
The Photographs of Robert Frank – During the 1950s, photographer Robert Frank began a 10,000-mile odyssey across the United States that produced a landmark book of images entitled "The Americans." In an era when many Americans prided themselves on conformity, Frank provided stark visual evidence that life across the nation was far more varied and interesting. Nobility, ugliness, grace, racism, dynamism, and division jumped off each page. Some Americans were outraged. Others were mesmerized. The powerfully expressive images this Swiss-born American master created will continue to speak for themselves.
What We're Ignoring
Venezuela's Military Threat – Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has dispatched 150,000 troops to his country's border with Colombia "to defend our sovereignty and national peace by deploying our defense resources in full force." We're ignoring any threat of military action here because, even as Venezuela continues to make trouble for the Colombian government via backing for Colombian rebel groups, he's not about to start a shooting war. Maduro's political (and maybe personal) survival depends almost entirely on the loyalty of his military's officer corps, and he's unlikely to test that loyalty by putting its troops in harm's way.
In the southern Italian region of Basilicata, home to the Val d'Agri Oil Centre known as COVA, hydrocarbon processing has undergone a radical digital transformation. COVA boasts one of the world's first fully digitized hydrocarbon plants, but why? Two primary reasons: infrastructure and information. Val d'Agri has the largest onshore hydrocarbon deposit in mainland Europe. The site is expansive and highly advanced, and the plant features a sophisticated sensor system built to capture massive amounts of data. Maintenance checks, equipment monitoring, inspections and measurements are tracked in a fully integrated digital system designed to prevent corrosion and ensure cleaner, more sustainable natural gas processing.
1.2 million: Surging jihadist terrorism in Burkina Faso has pushed the country to the brink of humanitarian crisis, as attacks displace people from their homes and destroy critical infrastructure and hospitals. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1.2 million Burkinabe are threatened with famine and malnutrition, and access to healthcare has dwindled. Experts say the violence is a spillover from the scourge of jihadism in neighboring Mali.
43: Russian investigators on Thursday raided the offices of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the homes of some of his supporters in 43 cities across Russia. Navalny's allies say the move is a response to their success in documenting vote rigging in last weekend's country-wide regional and municipal elections.
13 million: Ongoing violence in Syria, now in its ninth year, has displaced 13 million Syrians, according to a new report by a UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. That's more than the entire population of Belgium.
69: This week, India and Nepal unveiled South Asia's first cross-border oil pipeline, allowing Kathmandu to import crude more easily from its southern neighbor. The two countries have had their differences over ethnic tensions in southern Nepal, but New Delhi is shoring up ties in part because of concerns over China's bid to expand influence in the Himalayas.
Then and Now
The news cycle moves fast. In fact, since you started reading this piece, it's already moved on.
As an antidote to the news cycle madness, we've created a little time machine, Then and Now. Every so often we'll fire it up to look back at the stories that we've covered in the past, and bring you up to date on what's happened since.
This week we look back at the rebels of the FARC arming in Colombia, ISIS plotting a resurgence, and see what happened to the ceasefire in Yemen's port city of Hodeidah.
Words of Wisdom
"The transformation Brazil wants will not happen at the speed we yearn for through democratic means."
Part of a tweet from Brazilian politician Carlos Bolsonaro, son of the country's president, to his 1.3 million Twitter followers.
This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks with Gabrielle Debinski, and with editorial support from Alex Kliment (@saosasha) and Tyler Borchers. Spiritual counsel from Kevin Allison (@KevinAllison), Leon Levy (@leonmlevy), and the Right Honorable Mr. Flip Wilson.