Notes

Trump, NATO, and the Collapse of the Western Order

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a story about several attempts made by Mr. Trump to pull the United States out from NATO. Today, The German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, published an op-ed in the NYT about why the world still needs NATO. I fully agree with her account.

The NYT’s story says that the military and foreign policy establishment in Washington made the president abandon the idea, but there is no certainty that he will not return to this issue in the future and change his mind, forcing the U.S. withdrawal from NATO. We’ve seen him denounce international treaties and agreements that had strong support from the U.S. political establishment and all the “adults in the room” have already left the White House. So, the uncertainty and almost strategic lack of predictability surely make everyone in the European chancelleries very anxious and unsure about what may happen.

A US withdrawal from NATO will basically mean the end of the organization in all but name. It will definitely have consequences that will go much further than the North Atlantic, Europe or the entire Northern hemisphere. It will undermine the already crumbling European security architecture and will create profound anxieties in many parts of Europe. Outside of Europe, U.S. allies in Asia, the Middle East, et. al. will start to question how much should they rely on the U.S. security guarantees. If this happens, we may see arms races in the Persian Gulf, South East Asia, Southern Asia, and Europe.

In the North Atlantic and Europe, the US withdrawal will create a defense crisis. NATO is a highly integrated machinery and the US is its main engine. Take this engine away and the entire thing crumbles. On top of that, we cannot even comprehend what effects this will have at a cultural and interpersonal level. NATO is not only a defense organization, but it is also the institutionalized version of a security community. The defense and foreign policy practitioners, diplomats, experts, and policymakers are entangled in profound, sometimes decades-long, interpersonal relationships. They are socialized in a particular culture and have a relatively cohesive worldview. A US withdrawal from NATO will put under pressure these communities of practitioners and the security community that underpins, culturally, the institutional framework. A withdrawal will sever the strong transatlantic social interactions that facilitate the reproduction of this community with each new generation.

In Europe, the US withdrawal will increase the relative power and influence of Russia in continental affairs. At the same time, we may also witness an increase in the cohesiveness of the remaining NATO members, especially those that are also part of the EU due to the sudden insecurity created by the power vacuum left by the US withdrawal. At the national level, policymakers are probably already thinking about what until a few years ago was unthinkable.

How can the European states react to such a historic and potentially catastrophic event? It depends, of course, on their size, relative power, and proximity to potential [perceived] threats (i.e. Russia). For countries like Spain or Portugal, a US withdrawal will have a highly reduced impact compared to the effects on the Central and Eastern European countries. For countries like Poland and Romania, a US withdrawal will be perceived as a historical event with potentially catastrophic consequences. Old memories from the interwar period will be resurrected and contingency plans will be made in haste.

But what contingency plans or strategies could the European countries implement in such a situation? There are probably dozens of options and I definitely don’t have enough time to analyze every alternative, but the European governments have probably already allocated resources toward assessing all the potentialities. In a world defined by anarchy, one of the main duties of any responsible government is to prepare for any situation. And I am sure that most European governments are already working on contingency plans. The most eloquent example is the resurrection of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in 2018, probably as a direct reaction to the security uncertainty created by Donald Trump’s comments about NATO’s obsolescence.

A potential Trump withdrawal announcement will start a race to the Kremlin. Every European state, from Poland to Iceland, from Malta to Finland, will want to improve its relations with Moscow, or at least to ease the existing tensions. That is not going to be good news for Ukraine, for example. We may even see some bandwagoning from countries like Hungary or Turkey. But at the same time, most of them will work toward building a balancing coalition. This will require the expansion of EU’s defense and security roles, especially through PESCO but may require some treaty changes, especially because a mutual-defense guarantee (Art. 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty) may be desired. There are speculations that in the undesirable case of a US withdrawal, the French and German armies may be unified shortly after, essentially making the first step toward a European Army.

In the end, such a withdrawal will be a catalyst for further challenges against the liberal international political order. The post-modern European state, defined, according to Robert Cooper (2003), by the inextricably intertwined foreign and domestic policy (the border between the international and the national are extremely fluid), shared tools of governance and a conception of security as disentangled from the control over territory or the balance of power, will gradually be replaced by a resurrected European modern state. The post-modern state is not strong enough to survive without the US security umbrella. Its own definition makes it unable to survive in a world still dominated by modern states. States that act and conceive social reality in different terms, who prize the Westphalian sovereignty and autonomy, who seek power or security in territorial and resource-driven terms.

The democratic control of the Romanian intelligence

Marian Zulean & Emilia Sercan recently published a new peer-reviewed article about the democratic control (or lack thereof) of the Romanian intelligence system. Their main argument, to which I mostly concur, has two pillars:

First, the post-communist reform of the intelligence services has been incomplete, if not a semi-failure. The reform process was started as a consequence of the EU and NATO conditionality mechanisms and has been limited to a top-down, institutional, de jure, reform of the existing working frameworks. And once the conditionality disappeared, there was not sufficient willingness to continue a substantive reform of the Romanian intelligence services. This lack of political will and the push-backs from insiders made substantive reform impossible to implement.

Second, they show that the democratic control over the Romanian intelligence services is “an unfinished business”, if not just an illusion. By arguing this, they refute the institutionalist accounts on the democratic control and civil-military relations in Romania made by scholars like Thomas Bruneau and Florina Cristiana Matei, which argue the opposite. Zulean & Șercan’s take is that even if de jure, the democratic control exists and it is fairly strong, with all three branches of government involved, de facto it is just an illusion and has significant shortcomings.
Full disclosure: I have also published, a few years back, an institutionalist account on the same topic, which I consider today to be overly friendly to the Romanian intelligence services.

In order to explore more in-depth the lack of a real, de facto, democratic control of the intelligence services, they look at some recent public scandals. An interesting point in their narrative is the discussion on the arbitrary wiretapping and maybe even general surveillance of the population by the services, all in an unlawful manner. Using Radu Chiriță’s recent revelations, they show that the judicial control over the wiretapping activity of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) is almost non-existing. Between 2010 and 2015, 93% of all (109,946) wiretapping requests have been approved by the Romanian courts. The number of wiretappings for reasons of national security has also increased from just 48 in 2004 to 2497 in 2014. These numbers show that there is no serious, critical inquiry on the part of the judiciary over the requests received from the intelligence services. They also note the recent unconstitutionality decisions coming from the Constitutional Court and subtly refer to the undue relations between prosecutors, judges, and the intelligence community. A bit too subtle, in my opinion.

Further, they delve into the conspicuous civil-military relations between the Romanian political elite & the intelligence services. They show, correctly, that the border between the military and the civilian elite is fuzzy and very fluid. This raises the question of who controls who. Are the civilian decisionmakers under the control of the intelligence or the other way around? They emphasize the already existing debate over the undue influence of the Romanian intelligence over the Romanian policy-making process, the Romanian politicians, and the elite members of the judiciary. Moreover, they show how being linked to the intelligence world, through academic or executive educational programs, has become, to some degree, a certificate of elite membership. All important politicians and decision-makers attend, even if in name only, academic programs or courses at the National Security College or the National Intelligence Academy “Mihai Viteazu”.

The ‘correct’ academic pedigree has become a way of attesting your belongingness to the decision-making elite. Basically, the intelligence services have received a  carte blanche to decide who becomes a part of the Romanian establishment and political elite. Of course, this raises serious questions of who controls who and what impact does the possible re-socialization made through these ‘academic’ networks and venues of social interaction. It should be noted that Emilia Șercan is one of the journalists that uncovered the systematic plagiarism phenomenon of the last years. Her work shows that the system is not meritocratic. It does not care about academic abilities, it just uses the military academic system and its titles and certificates (Ph.D. for those in the inner circle, certificates for the members of the decision-making community) as signaling instruments and for controlling access to the seats of power.

Overall, Zulean and Șercan’s work is a much needed, well documented, and competent analysis of the current state of the democratic control (or lack thereof) of the Romanian intelligence services. However, it has some shortcomings, maybe due to the inherent space limitations imposed by publishing a journal article.

First, I think that they have focused too much on the role and influence of the Romanian intelligence services at the expense of offering a more holistic image of the civil-intelligence relations. Their focus on the intelligence side of these relations takes away almost all of the agency that the civilian elite members have and gives the impression that all of them are in bed with the intelligence services. The most important Romanian politicians are not sheep! And even if they may get in bed with the Romanian intelligence and accept their control, they are always looking for ways of escaping that control. As it has become obvious in the last year, once a political leader (e.g. Liviu Dragnea) thinks that he has acquired sufficient power, (s)he will try to resist the tentative control and pressure performed by the intelligence services. I would even argue that this has become a competition for power between two fairly equally powerful groups. Analytically, it does not help to dismiss the real and quite visible agency of the civilian elite.

Second, the authors do not go deep enough in their discussion over the importance of institutional and national security cultures for a functional and effective democratic control. They rightly show that the reform of the intelligence services consisted mostly in revamping the institutional and regulatory framework, without doing a complete re-socialization of the intelligence personnel. The literature presupposes that just changing the personnel with new people will suffice, which is not entirely correct. There is still an institutional memory, an organizational culture that has been inherited by the new generations of intelligence officers from those that remained from the previous generation and through their education. There is a stringent need for a more coherent and in-depth analysis of what are the characteristics of the organizational culture and memory of the Romanian Intelligence Service. To the benefit of the authors, I need to recognize, though, that you cannot do such a substantive analysis without getting inside the system.

Third and last, Zulean and Șercan seem to overlook the influence and role of the international and North-Atlantic partners of the Romanian intelligence. Is anyone doubting that the American or British intelligence does not know what’s happening in Romania or even inside the Romanian intelligence services? Isn’t public knowledge that Florian Coldea and George Maior, the current Romanian Ambassador to Washington & former Director of SRI, have received medals from their American counterparts for their contribution to the bilateral cooperation? We should question more openly why Romania’s western intelligence partners have not taken a public position when it became obvious that the democratic control over the intelligence services is dysfunctional.

Discussing the Opioid Epidemic

I was discussing yesterday with an American friend about the forthcoming vote in the U.S. Senate on the opioid response package and how it is just another example of racialized policymaking. Even a form of social construction of policy target groups. When you think about the policies the US government tends to adopt regarding substance abuse, it’s obvious that these policies are, without exception, resulting from the way you frame de discourse and the terminology you use in the public space. Words have consequences, language is performative because it frames reality and consummates an action.

When it comes to drug consumption and abuse, U.S. policymakers usually discuss the topic through two disparate and racialized discourse lenses. On the one hand, when the press or politicians talk about the opioid crisis in the midwestern US, which affects mostly blue collar and poor white demographics, the terminology used is medical in nature: “opioid epidemic”, “health crisis”, “substance-abuse”, “overdose crisis,” and so on. On the other hand, when they are discussing the same issue affecting the black communities, the same actors usually make use of a different terminology, such as: “war on drugs”, “trafficking”, “illicit drug”, “addict”, “criminals” and so on. One cannot escape the obvious racial dichotomy that exists in the public use of these words.

When it affects a certain demographic, the issue is medicalized and resources are allocated to alleviate and help the victims, which are seen as injured, as in need of help. When the same issue affects another demographic, the approach is entirely the opposite: they are seen as criminals unwilling to stop consuming illicit substances. Thugs that intentionally break the law for their own pleasure. The discrimination is obvious to any reasonable individual.

From these distinct discursive approaches towards the same issue emerge two different policy approaches. In the first case, substance abuse among whites is medicalized and resources are allocated toward treatment, prevention, and preemption. In the second case, substance abuse is criminalized and resources are allocated for the imprisonment of „criminal” addicts. The terminology matters! The words we use, the narratives we build, define the playing field and subsequently constrain and direct policy action.

But even before we get to discuss policy, we should ask ourselves why is drug consumption a problem? Why should we, as a society, care that some people have become addicted to certain psychotropic substances? Why should it be of public concern and not simply a private problem of the affected person and maybe his or her family? We definitely don’t care, as a society, about most of the individual problems affecting all of us separately.

We may find many humanitarian reasons to consider an individual problem as a public concern, but society as a whole cynically cares only about those issues that produce negative externalities. We care only when it affects us or the community as a whole. When this happens, the state intervenes to alleviate, control, or eliminate the unwanted externalities. In this case, by resolving the cause of the problem. The issue needs not to be objectively real, but only to be perceived as such in order for the government to act.

So, why is opioid consumption a public concern? Because it produces negative externalities. Drug consumption increases health care expenditures, decreases economic productivity, produces unwanted social behavior that derives from the addiction (e.g. stealing to buy drugs), and in some cases reduces the relative size of the labor force. This list is obviously not exhaustive. If we focus on these negative externalities, which have a significant impact on local communities, the general welfare, and the public good (in any way we define it), then it becomes quite obvious to any reasonable person that criminalizing the issue will not improve the general welfare. It will not alleviate the negative externalities caused by the phenomenon in question. If we care about the general welfare and individual autonomy, then we cannot treat drug consumption as a criminal phenomenon that requires punitive measures, except if the intent is different. Considering that the criminalization of substance abuse decreases the general welfare of the communities affected and attacks individual autonomy, then you will want to pursue such a line of action only if you are malicious in your intent towards those communities and people. Framing substance abuse in criminal terms can only show hostility towards the victim.

Therefore, substance abuse should be medicalized, not criminalized. From heroin consumption down to weed smoking, all of them should be treated as medical problems and be decriminalized. The same way we treat tobacco use or alcoholism. A racial inclusive and non-discriminatory policy towards substance abuse mandates that the state provide not only equal treatment to all but also equal opportunities. And equal opportunities means equal access to professional treatment for those in need and a focus on the needs of the communities affected. 

Constitutional Identity and Illiberalism

The concept of “constitutional identity” is not one of the most publicly recognizable legal concepts, but it has become one of the core concepts used by several constitutional courts in Europe and beyond. It has been used usually to argue for a larger degree of jurisdictional and interpretative autonomy when discussing issues which involve international law or European or international guidelines of good practice.

There is no universally agreed definition of what “constitutional identity” is or what it entails, making it an essentially contested concept, but there are several major legal understandings adopted by some European constitutional courts and major scholars. Law scholars have conceived constitutional identity from simply an ideational structure that derives from the basic institutional characteristics of the political regime it regulates (e.g. presidential or parliamentary system) up to a structure that is based on a relation between the fundamental act and national culture, religion, or ideologies (Rosenfeld 2012, 1).  The easiest way to understand the concept is by linking it to “national identity” and what that entails, as being part of a specific polity, a political community. It is a set of beliefs, values, and intersubjective meanings that define who we are and what makes us different from foreign constitutional regimes. But we should not confound the notions of constitutional and national identity, as they remain distinct. A nation, as an “imagined community”, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, does not need a constitution to exist, nor does its national identity require an institutionalized “state” to appear and evolve, even if historically this was one of the two models of nation-building. Central European nations like the Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians or the Balkan nations were constructed by elites in the absence of a national state. Of course, this is not the case for France, Germany, Italy or the United States. Constitutional identity is based on historical experiences that define a particular constitutional regime, establishing a difference from foreign regimes and dialectically co-constituting a national legal and constitutional tradition, which is in a constant evolution (Faraguna 2017). Constitutional identities, as any identity, defines interests and subsequently enable or constrains different paths of action.

While “constitutional identity” is essential to any constitutional polity, defining a legal tradition that enables a coherent and historically-conscious legal system, it may also be a hindrance in the process of overcoming pre-modern or illiberal practices. This is especially a problem in newer democracies, which do not have a long historical memory of rule of law nor a very solid liberal tradition. For polities in transition to full liberal regimes, constitutional identity may be instrumentalized in order to reject international recommendations or models of good practice. By appealing to a sovereignist constitutional identity, national courts justify their refusal to acquiesce to international jurisprudence, European law or recommendations from regional or international bodies, like the Venice Commission. European regulations, international recommendations are seen as valid and applicable as long as they do not contravene the constitutional identity of the state and to its tradition. But if the constitutional identity and its legal tradition have been defined and are deeply influenced by pre-democratic and particularist thinking, then these are becoming hindrances towards building true liberal democratic states defined by the rule of law.  Therefore, while essential in forging a strong and coherent legal system, constitutional identities may very well hinder progress for transitional countries. This is why I would argue that the constitutional identities of EU member states should never supersede EU law when from these results a lower level of protection than the one offered by European law.

Russia and Hungary

The most eloquent cases are maybe the ones of Russia and Hungary. In the case of Hungary, the Constitutional Court has made use at large of the concept of constitutional identity in order to justify Viktor Orban’s illiberal turn, in the last years. Starting in 2016, the Hungarian Constitutional Court adopted an ethnonational constitutional identity interpretation that facilitated Orban’s illiberal political project in Hungary, especially in regards to spatial and temporal of EU law and norms. In its December 2016 decision regarding the EU’s refugee relocation scheme, the Court argued that the Hungarian constitutional identity overrides the EU rules, which are considered to have primacy over national law, and international human rights treaties (e.g. the UN 1951 Refugee Convention), allowing the Hungarian government to refuse the acceptance of refugees. This created the conditions for the government to use the sovereignist constitutional identity to reject European and international criticisms regarding the rule of law and institutional changes performed by Orban’s party in the country. It was used in 2017 to reject domestic and international critique on the increased politicisation of the judiciary and other autonomous state institutions and in 2018 the Court used it to end the constitutional review on Lex CEU and Fidesz’s law labeling foreign-funded NGOs as foreign agents.

In the case of the Russian Federation, the Constitutional Court instrumentalized the concept of “constitutional identity” in order to defy the European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence. By declaring itself as the “protector of national constitutional identity”, the Court redefined its relationship with the ECtHR and the European Convention on Human Rights by refusing the primacy of ECHR and ECtHR’s jurisprudence when it comes in opposition not only to the provision of the Russian constitution but also to “national values” or the “constitutional identity” of Russia. This shows the ideological turn that took place in Moscow after the start of the conflict in Ukraine and the emerging conflict with the West and comes as a surprise, considering that the Russian Constitution postulates the primacy of international human rights law over national law when the international law is more favorable. In Markin v Russia, the Russian Constitutional Court used constitutional identity in order to assert a sovereignist position, to reject the universalist legal philosophy of the Strasbourg court and to emphasize the importance of a statist interpretation that takes into account the domestic cultural, moral, and historical peculiarities of Russia. In effect, the Russian Constitutional Court used the concept of “constitutional identity” to limit the application of European human rights law in Russia and to assert a more statist and conservative legal philosophy which I doubt is as liberal and inclusive as the European one.

Constitutional Pluralism and Constitutional Identity

While constitutional pluralism represents a desirable characteristic of the European and international law regime, the potential drawbacks epitomized by the use of constitutional identity narrative by transitional courts, in their endeavor to protect a statist and sovereignist conception of human rights law, may very well come to haunt us. Uniformity and a European constitutional identity that will limit the possibilities for the states to establish lower guarantees when it comes to human rights and rule of law frameworks may represent a more useful and genuinely expressive way of protecting a liberal international law order. This does not mean that we should eliminate state autonomy or to take away the margin of appreciation that national courts enjoy, but we should make sure that arguments based on ideas like “constitutional identity” can be used only to enhance human rights and to defend the rule of law, rejecting its use when it implies the adoption of a lower standard of review and protection.

Let Assad Win. The West Will Win Soon After.

The Syrian civil war drags on for over 7 years, with no swift end in sight. It is a humanitarian catastrophe and preempts any possible geopolitical stabilization of the Middle East, which is badly needed by all actors in the region and its near neighborhood (Europe, Africa, Central Asia). This multi-sited civil conflict, transformed into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as between the United States and Russia. Its death toll is estimated to be around 470,000, with 1.9 million wounded (11.5% of the total population before the war). It displaced almost 11 million people, half the population of Syria, in the neighboring countries (especially Jordan and Turkey), Europe and other countries.

This must end. And the easiest way to end it is by letting al-Assad conditionally win the war. Let his regime in place, ask the rebels to give up the fight and accept a compromise which will allow the al-Assad regime to survive, but get assurances that the Kurdish minority will receive political and legal protection in post-war Syria. I think that it is in the power of the western states to end the bloodshed, even if this will mean that in the short term Vladimir Putin will win a stronghold in the Middle East and a military port at the Mediterranean, which already exists. It will not last, Russia and Iran will lose Syria in the end. They don’t have the resources necessary to keep the al-Assad regime loyal and on their side, and the memory of the conflict will fade away in a few years, when the misery will settle in.

The 1.9 million wounded, the 11 million displaced, the 470,000 dead are just the tip of the iceberg. According to the World Bank, a third of the Syrian housing stock, half of the educational and health-care facilities are destroyed. Entire cities, towns, and villages have been eviscerated by carpet bombing. Highways, roads, bridges, and ports have been destroyed by bombing and years of neglect. The electricity infrastructure has been severely damaged, even if most power plants are still operational. It will take years and tens of billions of dollars to build back the cities and infrastructure, repair the economic networks, and recover what is left of Syria’s historical heritage. The cumulative losses in gross domestic product (GDP) have been estimated by the World Bank at $226 billion. And this is only the physical capital. Among the millions of displaced Syrians are maybe the most qualified and educated people that the country had. The brain drain will be hard to compensate and the West could help by starting programs of voluntary and, if necessary, involuntary repatriation of the Syrian refugees in Europe. Post-war Syria will need a well-educated workforce, engineers, doctors, teachers and so on.

The Syrian government will need tens of billions of dollars to build back what was destroyed by the war and Syria does not have any significant natural resources to use in order to attract capital. Therefore, it will require capital influxes from abroad. Russia will not be able to financially support Syria at even minimal levels. The entire Russian National Wealth Fund has total assets in the amount of just $66 billion dollars. And the Western economic sanctions already limit Moscow’s economic options. With a stable but slow-growing economy, expelled from the international markets by the Western sanctions, it will not afford to financially support the Syrian regime. Neither can the other ally of Assad, the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the stiff Western sanctions have mostly been waived after the nuclear agreement, Iran in no position to invest billions and billions of dollars in Syria, when its own domestic needs are hardly fulfilled. The years of economic decline caused by the Western sanctions are still visible, even with an estimated growth of over 3%. There are just two other actors who have the ability to financially support Syria: China and the West.

While China has significant resources and could invest huge amounts of money in Syria, I hardly see that happening. China does not seem to express any significant interest in the region. It abstained from voting on any major Western-sponsored or Russian-sponsored UNSC resolution and does not seem to be on the Belt and Road Initiative roadmap. I’m not saying that China could not use the opportunity to build a new stronghold in the Middle East, but for the moment it has shown no interest in doing so. It formally supported Assad, but nothing more. I’ve seen no substantial efforts made by Beijing on behalf of Damascus.

So only the West and its international financial institutions remain a viable option for building back Syria. And Assad will want to build back the country. Otherwise, he will have another war soon enough, once the misery of life will become overwhelming. And the West, with its decades of expertise and history of negotiating financial packages with authoritarian regimes, will have conditions for Damascus. The conditionality of financial assistance, the tied-aid packages, are among the most powerful and effective non-military tools that the West has. Those conditions will eventually require a realignment of Assad’s regime on the West’s side, will ask for more political, economic, and religious opening and liberalization. This is the standard package of any Western financial deal. The West may lose the fight on the ground, but it will win the war in the offices of IMF, the World Bank, and the Treasury Departments of its major capitals. I see no other option for any Syrian government,

Cornering Trump on Russia

The scandals and allegations regarding the presumed covert relationship between Donald J. Trump and the Kremlin have become almost a normal part of the daily news cycle and with the resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, after he lied to vice-president Pence about the content of his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the US, the scandal keeps getting traction as more leaks appear on the alleged connections between his administration or campaign with agents of the Russian government.

I don’t know if the allegations are true, but I doubt that Trump systematically or actively engaged with FSB/GRU or other agents of the Kremlin during his campaign. Yes, the Russian Federation was clearly involved in the elections but as an active bystander and Trump’s campaign, as the major beneficiary of Russian involvement was just pleased with the result and used what the Russians published. This post is not about the Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, but about the (potential) effects on the U.S. foreign policy of the narrative that is built around the alleged relationship between Trump and Russia. I argue that the truth is irrelevant *wink wink* in this case and what matters is how this narrative impacts Trump’s administration foreign policy towards Russia and its interests. I contend that by constructing a persuasive and credible narrative on an existing Trump-Russian meddling, one can (1) limit the policy options available to the current administration and the State Department when engaging with Russia on a multitude of topics and (2) can potentially successfully securitize Trump’s engagement (and any potential deal) with Russia as a threat to the U.S. national security.

If Donald Trump is serious about his desire to restart the U.S. relations with the Russian Federation on pragmatic basis, then we could legitimately expect a change in (1) the U.S. foreign policy discourse regarding Russia’s status as a power in the international system, (2) a transactional relationship between the U.S. and Russia on a large variety of current issues, and (3) a relaxation in the U.S. rhetoric regarding the Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria. But this would be considered to be a legitimate shift from the previous administration’s policies on Russia only if the U.S. security and intelligence establishment (including here the security policy-makers in the Congress) would believe that the administration new policies are implemented to benefit the United States. However, if the U.S. security, intelligence, and foreign policy establishment would start to think that the new administration has some troubling connections to the Russians that could impinge upon what is considered to be the legitimate interests of the U.S., then we could reasonably expect that (1) the administration will try to calm down its detractors by adopting a tougher approach and rhetoric towards Russia or/and (2) the Congress and the security establishment would press for a stronger foreign policy towards Russia.

By constructing a compelling narrative that there is reasonable doubt that officials in the Trump administration are (or even the president himself is) working for pro-Russian interests that have the potential to threaten the national security and interests of the United States, then a potential securitizing actor could convince an audience of policy-makers, foreign policy officers, and intelligence officials that the foreign policy of Trump’s administration towards Russia constitutes an existential threat to U.S. national security and subsequently make the audience to systematically and maybe subversively undermine such policy or actions that are perceived as helping Russia. First, I think that such a narrow and sectorial securitization is possible (e.g. securitizing only the policy towards Russia and not the entire Trump foreign policy) due to existing beliefs, ideational predispositions, and historical antipathy of major security policy-makers, intelligence, and State Dep. officials that would be just reconfirmed by allegations of meddling between Trump’s administration and the Kremlin. Second, contrary to most of the existing literature on securitization, I argue that the securitizing actor could use the audience itself to undermine and confute Trump’s policy and discourse on Russia. The existing literature doesn’t consider the possibility that the audience itself (and only the audience) could have the tools to implement measures in response to the perceived “existential threat,” I argue that in fact, this is possible and that in some cases it could be the only possible option available to the securitizing actor.

By doing so, an actor could corner Trump’s foreign policy on Russia, limiting the available policy options, and force the administration to maintain the status quo. At the same time, the Congress authority on foreign policy could be emphasized by limiting (by legislative ways) any potential unwarranted changes in the US foreign policy towards Russia. Finally, I am in no way saying that this is what is happening currently in the U.S. with the Trump-Russia scandal, but what I’ve hypothesized in this post sounds possible and credible enough to be taken into consideration when we analyze what’s happening. We’ll just need to wait and see.

Putin: mission accomplished in Syria?

Yesterday, the President of Russia, Mr. Vladimir Putin, declared ‘mission accomplished’ in Syria and ordered the withdrawal of the Russian troops and airplanes that bombed the Syrian opposition and the jihadist factions that are fighting against the al-Assad regime for the control of the Syrian territory. This happens approximately six months after the beginning of the Russian military campaign in support of the government in Damascus.

What did I do?

Starting from the Russian president declaration that the major objectives of the operation were generally fulfilled, I did a discourse analysis of past discourse transcripts and statements of the Russian president and other high-level officials regarding the major objectives assumed by the Russian government and army in Syria in the last months, especially in the first two months (September-October ’15) of the operation. I have selected five relevant speech transcripts or statements of the Russian government from the Kremlin website (English version) and searched for main ideas concerning major policy objectives for the Syrian operation.

What are the results?

Throughout all five texts, the main policy objectives that can be discerned are (1) to block the return of Russian or post-Soviet Space citizens that have become jihadists and ISIS-affiliated fighters to the Russian Federation or into the post-Soviet Space, (2) to save the al-Assad regime in Syria (3) and force a dialogue between the Rebel factions and the al-Assad regime for a ‘comprehensive strategy’ for political stabilization by maintaining a pro-Russian reformed regime in Damascus, (4) and, finally, that the military support will have a limited timeframe (according to Russian sources quoted by Western mass-media outlets (e.g. BBC article), the timeframe was set at maximum six months).

Are those objectives fulfilled?

Having discovered the main policy objectives of the Russian government in Syria, we can now search if the publicly-stated objectives have been ‘generally fulfilled’, as the Mr. Putin declared on Monday.

(1) Blocking the return of Islamic radicalized individuals to the Russian Federation or its near-abroad;

I have no way of analyzing if this objective has been reached by the military operation deployed in Syria, but we can infer that by killing a significant number of Al-Nusra, ISIS, and rebel fighters they could have reduced to some degree the number of returned fighters, even if they were not able to discriminately strike only those fighters that have links with the Russian space. I will say that this objective has not been fulfilled.

(2) The Salvation of the al-Assad regime in Syria

This major policy objective has been clearly achieved by this military opperation and the joint diplomatic offensive. Last September, the al-Assad regime was controlling just a few territories around Damascus and had major problems protecting its capital from a steady and strong offensive of the rebel forces from the East and the West, together with regular incursions of ISIS forces from the South. The Russian military intervention has been essential for the survival of the Damascus regime.

(3) Force a dialogue between the rebel factions and the al-Assad regime and a ‘comprehensive strategy’ for political stabilization

This major policy objective has been also achieved but remains to be seen if the discussions between the two sided will continue and if the al-Assad regime will agree to structural reforms that will integrate the rebel elite into its leadership and if the pro-Russian stance continues under the new political regime.

(4) Limited timeframe (4-6 months)

The Russian intervention in Syria was from the start declared and envisioned to be relatively short, for about six months. This has been, in my opinion, a smart move from Kremlin, who didn’t want to be caught to entangled in the Syrian conflict. Even so, it raises some questions about the operational capabilities of the Russian Army to operate abroad for a long period of time.

Conclusions

As we can see, the main policy objectives officially stated by the Russian Federation in multiple statements in the first months of the military campaign have been ‘generally fulfilled’ in the six months timeframe. The achievements are not complete or absolute, nor definitive or secured, especially the first (and a very important objective for the Russian national security) and the third. It remains to be seen whether the achievements will last the test of time and international politics.

Speech transcripts or statements used in my analysis

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50385

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/50401

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/50458

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/50533

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/51511

Living in the Romanian Deaf Community

I am a CODA. As a ‘child of deaf adults,’ I have grown up with a foot in the mainstream hearing culture of Bucharest and another in the Deaf sub-culture. A status that offers me a unique insight and access to the affairs and social developments that take place in the Romanian Deaf community, especially the one in Bucharest. In my childhood, I will frequently go with my parents on social visits to other deaf family friends – almost all our family friends are deaf – or to social or sports events.These events are organized in the community by informal groups or by the sole and most important organization: the Association of the Deaf in Romania. Thus, I have learned the sign language and have been socialized – at least partially – with the customs, values and distinct cultural identity of the Deaf sub-culture and its members.

My childhood was, generally speaking, as normal as of any other child in the neighborhood, with some important exceptions. First, as a child of deaf parents, I was immersed in a subculture that has different customs, attitudes to the wider society, and a tendency for cultural seclusion. A tendency developed as a way of protecting its members against discrimination and influences that are considered alien to the community. Second, as the single hearing member in my (nuclear) family, I was the primary mediator between my deaf parents and the hearing society. This doesn’t mean that my parents are unable to communicate in a non-verbal way or that they are not well integrated into the Romanian society, quite the opposite. What I mean is that from late childhood and adolescence, I was the main “representative” of my parents when they needed to have direct and efficient interactions with state officials or other individuals. When my mom or dad needed to go to the Tax Office, to the City Hall, or to the Police, I will almost always be with them to mediate the communication between them and the public servants. But I was not only an „unaccredited” sign language translator, I also served as a facilitator in these interactions. I would seek to defend their rights even when they did not know that they have rights. This is, in my opinion, one of the trigger factors that accelerated my maturation, that permitted me to become autonomous and independent from an early age. This, and the certainty that my parents have always trusted me. Maybe the independence that they offered me was a way of thanking me for my permanent assistance to their needs. Or maybe they just thought that I was able to manage my own affairs unsupervised. In general, this had some positive effects on my life, and now I can say that it helped me advance in life to a point that I am proud of myself, even with the inherent setbacks that are, to some degree, inevitable in life.

Being the primary facilitator of my parents in their interactions with state officials or other hearing adults made me aware of how society works from an early age. It offered me the opportunity to become more versed with legal and social norms and made me a better communicator. But, at the same time, it made me frequently anxious when I was not prepared enough for the task required by my parents or by the person whom I contacted on their behalf. This anxiety is haunting me to this day. Furthermore, my social role as facilitator and translator permitted me to observe the unspoken – but very present – discrimination that deaf and other disabled people suffer every day.

This discrimination is multi-dimensional and multi-vectorial, resulting from a number of causes that are related to the physical impairment that deaf people suffer of and the societal perception of their impairment. First, they are discriminated in the labor market by employers who don’t find them fit to do a significant number of tasks. They are completely excluded from entire industries or economic sectors that require direct contact with customers, even if the state is offering fiscal incentives for the inclusion of disabled people into the labor market. Secondly, deaf people have limited educational opportunities. There are no university-level programs for deaf high school graduates and only 9 technological or technical high schools that are not only limiting the future professional opportunities of deaf people. This lack of educational opportunities is condemning them to precarious livelihoods, long-term welfare dependency, and functional illiteracy, precluding them to become active and productive members of society. Thirdly, deaf persons tend to be marginalized in social activities by their hearing peers, creating a form of segregation that makes deaf people desire to socialize only in their own community, with deaf peers, secluding them from larger social developments. This phenomenon socially constructs an innate fear from social events that may appear to be normal in the mainstream culture but are perceived as strange in the deaf sub-culture.

The Deaf Community and Culture

The deaf community can be defined in the terms of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ because even if the 30-40,000 members of the community in Romania don’t know each other and don’t see themselves every day, they perceive themselves as part of such a community. They have a “horizontal comradeship” that is based on deafness, the common sign language, and a specific sub-culture. In the Anglo-American scholarship, the most used definition is the one given by Baker and Padden (1978, p. 4) who argued that “[t]he deaf community comprises those deaf and hard of hearing individuals who share a common language, common experiences and values, and a common way of interacting with each other, and with hearing people.”

The Romanian deaf community has about 30,000 members that are dispersed in almost every county, with the largest community in Bucharest. These people suffer from widespread economic discrimination, are highly dependent on welfare assistance (60€/70$ per month + other non-financial benefits) and suffer from high levels of functional illiteracy.

The community life of the deaf people takes place around the “Club,” as it is known in the community. The Club is a physical place that is the epicenter of the cultural and social life of the deaf community in a given city. It is usually placed at the local headquarters of the National Association of the Deaf in Romania. It is the main place of gathering for the community, the place where social and cultural events like thematic parties or silent theater representations take place. It is also the location where the members of the community can ask for help from the Association on a particular problem or can request for an accreditated translator.

The Deaf culture is in many ways unique. It is centered around the Sign language as the first language of communication and is formed by shared values, norms, arts, educational institutions, social structures, and organizations. The Romanian Deaf culture is constructed and reconstructed around the “Club,” the multiple high schools, deaf theater teams, the “Vocea Tăcerii” magazine, multiple sports events like football or chess, and a new and developing online presence that takes form through Camfrog webcam services and social media platforms, especially Facebook. When an outsider starts learning more about the Deaf culture, (s)he will discover a very particular understanding of deafness. Contrary to the general understanding of hearing loss, deaf people don’t consider their deafness to be a disability and some deaf people will be very offended by any view that sees their deafness as a negative factor that should be remediated. The Deaf culture has been constructed on the assumption that deaf people are no different than hearing people. Their deafness is just a thing that differences them from hearing people, in the same way, a blue-eyed person is different from a brown-eyed person. The truth is that deaf people tend to be quickly offended if people assume otherwise and are quite open in expressing their feelings as clearly as possible, regardless if the person is deaf or not. I think that this may be a way of protecting against discrimination or ill-treatment that is not so common in the hearing culture. So, never tell a deaf person that he/she is impaired.

Another relatively new and interesting development that takes place in the Deaf community is related to the increased interest shown by various churches for offering religious services to deaf people. Historically, the community was for a very long time underserved by the majoritarian Romanian Orthodox Church. There was a lack of priests that knew the Sign language or the church had no interest to prepare such clergyman to serve the Deaf community. All changed 3-4 year ago when the Jehovah’s Witnesses started to prepare ministers to attract deaf people and this led to a swift reaction from the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The silent religious war

As a CODA, I was able from an early age to distinguish between values that are different in the mainstream hearing culture from the ones in the Deaf culture. Religion was never something that I considered to be important to my family or in the Deaf culture. I knew a few deaf people who were very religious, but they were exceptional cases that grow up and were socialized in very religious hearing families. This doesn’t mean that some deaf people don’t have a personal understanding of God and faith. The lack of clergyman that was able to use the Sign language was probably the main factor for this low religious participation in the deaf community.

This changed when the Jehovah’s Witnesses started to prepare special hearing ministers that knew the Sign language and were, more or less, socialized with the customs of the community. This started a religious revolution in the deaf community, as I was able to observe it. Especially in Bucharest and the Western part of the country. The neutral position of the National Association of the Deaf in Romania facilitated the dissemination of the newly available videos in the Sign language and literature that was written in a way that will be simple enough to be understood by the members of the community. JW deaf congregations appeared in the major cities of the country and this alerted the Romanian Orthodox Church, which started, maybe for the first time, to show some interest for the life of deaf people. From that moment, the Romanian Orthodox Church started a new program of preparing priests and deacons to serve de underserved deaf communities in the large cities that were lured by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This started a silent war between the two Christian groups over the souls of the deaf people. Today, we can find Orthodox churches that serve the deaf community in over 15 major cities in Romania. Five years ago, there was only one.  I am not able to fully assess the full significance of this religious competition, but I did observe an increase in religious-related topics of discussion at the ‘Club’ and some conflicts between those attracted by the JW and the ones that go to the Orthodox churches. It will be interesting to see how this situation develops further. 

Short conclusions

As a child of deaf parents and being raised in both the Deaf sub-culture and the mainstream culture as a hearing individual, I had the opportunity to be part of two worlds that co-exist in the same geographical space. This has had significant effects on my life that are had to assess and I will probably never be fully able to explain or even comprehend. With positive and negative consequences, as it is usual in everyone’s life. But it also offered me the opportunity to have a different ‘Self’, one that looks at the world in multiple ways. It always remembers me that nothing is black and white, that everything is in shades of grey. That there is never only one way to look at things. This alone did not open my eyes or made me understand reality with all its struggles, but I think that it helped to a significant degree. My parents and the community offered me the opportunity to see how our society works from an angle that is usually ignored by mainstream society. They offered me a life model and some principles to fight for: non-discrimination, equality, individual autonomy, social fairness, and respect for the needs of other people.

The Romanian deaf community is small and needy, but its leaders from the past and the current ones succeeded in constructing a coherent and sustainable sub-culture that promotes cohesion, emotional and social support to its members. They have created a social reality that makes deafness less relevant to social existence. As a CODA, I have been blessed to have amazing parents that succeeded in life when they were expected to fail, and the community played a significant role in this, together with my grandparents.

#CorruptionKills and the Romanian Neoliberal discourse

The #CorruptionKills slogan is maybe one of the most remembered mottos that endured after the „Colective”-related protests of last winter in Romania. A significant part of the people that occupied the University Square in Bucharest last winter have acquiesced to the main assumption of the neoliberal discourse, that the tragedy in the Colective Club happened because the state and the economy were filled with corrupt people and this caused the death of almost 100 youngsters. Indeed, the Colective fire happened probably because of improper arrangements and maybe illegal actions of state officials and the owners of the club, and this fits very well into the neoliberal discourse.

As a friend said to me a few days ago, the neoliberal movement transformed the anti-corruption fight from an instrument for reforming the state and enhancing the quality of life of Romanian citizens into a purpose in itself. Their aim is no longer to reform the state and to protect democracy and the human rights through fighting corruption, they transformed the anti-corruption fight into the main goal of the movement, the only thing they are fighting for. They transformed the means to achieve the goal into the goal itself. The process has become the purpose of the process. This is extremely visible in the current debates around the recent decision of the Constitutional Court regarding the right of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to assist the prosecution with phone tapes, it is like the Apocalypse is upon us.

One of the main exponents of the neoliberal movement, Mrs. Monica Macovei, MEP, even declared that “[i]n a country where criminality is high, the human rights cannot be fully exercised”, arguing that we shall limit the exercise of human rights to fight criminality.

Fighting corruption just for the sake of fighting corruption is not a smart way of doing things. I’m not saying that corruption is not a scourge on the Romanian state and society, but fighting corruption must be the instrument through which the public welfare and interest are served, not the other way around.