Europe Again – More Dysfunction in Both UK and Italy

There are signs again that Europe is off track with both the anti-European stance by Prime Minister David Cameron and his Euro-skeptics and the politics in a number of member states, not least in Italy, the third largest economy in Europe. But, Italy is not unique unfortunately.

Cameron’s foolishness has already been covered in a couple of our blog posts, and is especially sad since Britain could play a positive role if it could change its leadership’s narrow perspective, its anti-European stand and if it could seek real common solutions and not just protect its financial “City” institution’s desire to enrich their management, but not the nation. 

The political uncertainty in Italy has reverberations throughout Europe, with no clear winner emerging from the Italian elections.  None of the political parties have secured a majority in either houses of parliament. Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left Democratic Party gained a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but he was behind former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing faction in the Senate. But, the comedian, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement will be strongly represented in both houses of parliament. Prime Minister Mario Monti’s centrist party garnered only 10% of the vote, and an alliance between his party and Mr. Bersani’s Democratic Party would not be enough to gain a majority in the Senate. Further, there is deep division between Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Grillon on anti-austerity policies. Thus, uncertainty about Italy’s direction remains. .

The deadlock is causing vexation throughout Europe. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said recently, “What is crucial now is that a stable functioning government can be built as swiftly as possible. This is not only in the interests of Italy but in the interests of all Europe.” Yet, Germany is at the forefront of the problem with its insistence on harsh austerity already proven a disaster throughout Europe. 

Other leaders in Europe are also expressing concern, but not taking the lead in a reversal of austerity, and are not acting to stem the move to radical largely right parties with anti-European nationalistic and bigoted agendas. The financial market’s reaction to the incertitude caused by the election appears to be reacting to a sense of downward and irresponsible politics and a lack of direction. Italian shares recently lost some 5% of their value. The yields on Italian ten-year bonds increased strongly. The Euro also dropped against the dollar and stock markets fell in France and Germany. But, we are likely to see wide swings depending on the news of the day without any sense of a firm future outcome.

We are not immune in America from these tribulations and dysfunctions in Europe. Europe’s collective move toward deep and thoughtless austerity policies have brought much of Europe to its knees economically, and despite the disaster these policies have brought upon the people of Europe, there is no clear sign yet that European leaders have learned any lessons.

But, Americans have no room to be smug. Our own dysfunction seems even more of a worldwide disaster given the global impact in terms of security, economy and international governance that the U.S. has. Together, these two groupings in Europe and North America represent about half of the globe’s economy and much of its scientific and technological talent. 

Further, there are signs that the worse, not better, may lie ahead, unless our collective politics gets better, both at the national, regional and super-national levels. On the latter, I hope that Secretary Kerry and the new incoming Secretary of the Treasury, along with President Obama will put back on the top of our agenda the healing of our economies, will put in place jointly growth strategies and programs, and as part of this, proceed with the idea of a Trans-Atlantic trade pact. But, they need to also act on reigning in the excesses of our private financial institutions, which seem determined to go back to their old greedy irresponsible ways of not investing in the “real economy,” but again in destructive “paper transactions,” which undermine a sound fair economy that creates jobs and not just riches for the very few.


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The Russian Bear – A Long Dark Night of Repression and Hibernation?

More and more reports are coming out of Moscow that President V. Putin is intent on a salami slicing process of deep repression and authoritarian Soviet style rule. His actions have included repression against NGOs in Russia that take money from abroad and those that don’t, the passing of legislation that limits freedom of expression, including the protests against them, criticism of the Kremlin, and  the clamping down on freedom of the press.  The goal is a top down government from the Kremlin.

In the realm of foreign affairs the probation of adoption by American families of orphans, along with indications that Putin is perhaps in an angry mood toward America and the West, seems to be pursuing a series of policies that are at cross purposes with those of the U.S. and of other Western democracies.

Now, news comes out that further legislation aimed at cutting the ties of Russians with the outside world are in the process. These may include a ban on Russian officials having connections abroad, such as wives and children living or being educated outside of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Putin has also closed down local broadcasting by VOA in Russia. Corruption is endemic and tolerated especially if it is by Putin’s favorites.

Beyond these moves is a decidedly strong trend towards the kind of extreme xenophobia and the suppression of anything that smacks of “Western” or the culture of and civic support for real “democracy.”

There seems at the same time, a trend by Putin, to increase defense/military spending at the expense of the funding of domestic needs like health care, which is already appalling.  Also, Putin has instituted his stronger control over the regional governments at the expense of local autonomy.

In the background, there is a growing resentment by the middle class of Putin’s policies and a desire for a more open society. In the end, it will be the citizens of Russia that will likely move the regime or rid it of its authoritarian overlay. Meanwhile, this increasingly corrosive overlay of society is accompanied by public cynicism or even support. There are signs of a more open debate of resentment and opposition to the authoritarian and corrupt elements. My guess is that this desire for a modern and open society will in the end carry the day, but at a very high cost to the Russian people who have waited centuries for some sense of dignity and real civil rights.

The question for America and its allies is what can be done, if anything, to persuade Vladimir Putin and not least the Russian people that both repression at home and belligerence abroad is not in their own interests? The Russian Federation now faces not only years of possible reaction, but also possible loss of inward investment, and a possible loss of its main revenue if either oil or gas prices fall or non-Russian supplies are supplanted from other regions.

The first thing that should not be done is to overreact ourselves mindlessly and preemptively act in ways that would only reinforce Putin’s obsessions and other right wing nationalists and play into their hands in creating an isolated and besieged Russia. This would give “rational” to the Kremlin to adapt authoritarian acts to “defend” its sovereignty and “Security” interests.

Those in America who wish to isolate Russia and make them a forever “enemy” and recreate a new “Cold War” are as much a danger to wise policy and the integration of Russia into the community of responsible nations. These “neocom” right wing “war hawks” wanted a mindless war with Iraq, they wanted us to confront China rather than engage them and push the “inevitable” coming conflict with China, and now they want to do the same with Russia.

What is needed instead is a wise long-term strategy of encouraging cooperation and confidence of the Russian people and also, especially of the growing better educated elite and middle class to recognize that Putin trajectory means only greater poverty of its people, less growth in modern technology and knowledge, and will destine Russia forever to be backward and solitary.

Our first step must be to once again reassert to the Russian people that we desire partnership and collaboration for the benefit of both our nations and to continue our “reset” dialogue with Russian leaders even when it seems almost hopeless to persuade them of its efficacy to their own interests. We need to devise a comprehensive agenda of useful initiatives and to hold out its benefits and break down the walls of communication between our society and theirs – even over the heads of the current regime if necessary.

Obama will be visiting Russia in the fall for a G-20 meeting and before that meeting there needs to be a major focused effort to engage in the kind of diplomacy, which reconnects our two nations and emphasizes those areas of mutual interest. Also, there should be an emphasis on a “full court press” of public diplomacy and the use of what many call “third tract” “back door” and a quiet effort to reach Russian citizens directly with the theme that America is not their enemy, but rather that together we can have the kind of cooperation that respects Russian’s real interests. The issues to be addressed early on in a quiet way include missile defense in Europe, Iran’s nuclear weapons, Syria, North Korea, our exit from Afghanistan, trade opportunities, investment and above all nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. That short list illustrates the still importance of the reasons behind the original “reset.”  Secretary Kerry and President Obama now need to put enough attention and energy into this necessarily long-term strategy, which for a host of reasons is of the greatest importance to global security for everyone.

After reading this article, be sure to look at our Student National Security-Foreign Policy Solutions Essay Contest page to submit your essay today!