Arms Race, Orbán Strikes Back, the Base Alloy of Hypocrisy and the Week in Review

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Arms Race, Orbán Strikes Back, the Base Alloy of Hypocrisy and the Week in Review

Happy Friday y’all. Don’t forget to check out the latest episode of the Perch Pod by clicking here. A new episode drops Monday on India and Kashmir.


Arms race. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told The Wall Street Journal that Moscow had rejected U.S. conditions for the extension of the New START treaty and for negotiating a new nuclear arms-control treaty.  

What it means: New START is the shorthand for the “2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.” The treaty, which limits the U.S. and Russia to no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each, expires on February 5, 2021, unless it is extended for five years. The Trump administration does not want to extend the treaty: it wants a new treaty. That’s fair enough: any treaty that still allows 3,100 nuclear warheads to be deployed around the world could probably use some improvement.

Unfortunately, that’s not the rub. The U.S. is not holding out for a better deal. Instead, it wants Russia’s help in bringing China into a trilateral nuclear arms deal. It might as well seek Russia’s help in discovering Bigfoot’s lair. The U.S. is asking Russia to do something it is incapable of doing and has proven unwilling to compromise on this or any other of its demands. The U.S. has also dismissed the fact that Russia has complied with its New START obligations and claims that Russian violations of another arms reduction treaty, the INF treaty, proves that Russia is not acting in good faith. The Congressional Research Service has noted that New START does not interfere with any U.S. modernization programs for its own nuclear forces, so the argument that this is about defending the U.S. also falls on deaf ears.

Unless the U.S. is willing to do a profound about-face, it is unlikely at this point that New START will be extended under President Trump’s watch. If Biden wins in November, this will likely be one of the first areas of damage control even though he is on record as hoping to be a lot tougher on Russia than President Trump has been. The scariest part of the Cold War was two superpowers possessing the firepower to destroy the world. When will we ever learn?


Orbán strikes back. The European Commission published its first EU-wide report on the “rule of law situation” across the European Union. The report criticized a number of EU countries including Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán responded by demanding the resignation of EC vice president Věra Jourová. Orbán subsequently told Hungarian News Agency (MTI) that he thought the EC was tying rule of law issues to the COVID-19 rescue package and that Hungary could seek out an “intergovernmental agreement” outside EU institutions if the EC continued to single Hungary out.

What it means: In the last two installments of the Week in Review, we talked about how the European Union seemed to be coming together. To every reaction, however, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This week that reaction manifested in the figure of Viktor Orbán, the controversial Hungarian Prime Minister whose government has earned itself plenty of demerits from the European Commission and challenged liberal democratic sensibilities. In the words of the Hungarian government, the report “not only fallacious but absurd” and “unfit for its purpose, its sources are unbalanced and its content is unfounded. More significant, however, was Orbán’s insinuation that Hungary might block the EU’s Next Generation Recovery plan.

Orbán’s strategy is clear enough: capitalize on opposition to Brussels within the EU to get the Commission off his back. Poland has also earned the European Commission’s ire in the past and was called out in the report. Romania, Czechia, Malta, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, and Bulgaria all have room for improvement too according to Brussels. Besides its potential fellows in indignation, Orbán is no doubt aware that “the Frugals” – Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria – have never been that enamored with the recovery plan because they fear raising 750 billion euros of EU-backed debt will raise their own interest rates or, even worse, lead to bailouts of profligate southern European countries with Danish, Swedish, Dutch, and Austrian euros. For the recovery plan to proceed, it must be unanimously approved by all EU member states, and Orbán is betting there is enough dissatisfaction with Brussels, in general, to push back against the European Commission and make it seem like Brussels – not Budapest – is the one holding things up with its political grandstanding.

Think whatever you like about Orbán. He’s a leader who elicits strong opinions.  He’s also an excellent politician. He understands that there is real apprehension in Europe’s smaller countries that a stronger EU will be dominated by French and German interests and will entail the loss of Hungarian/Polish/insert-nationality-here sovereignty. But that is also the price European countries will have to pay if they want to remain globally significant powers. It is also why French President Emmanuel Macron has been saying for years now that the EU must undertake wholesale reforms, and must allow countries that want to integrate more fully to do so without politics grinding to a halt because a country with ~10 million people and representing ~1 percent of the EU’s GDP does not like being criticized. The ball is now in the EU’s court and there are no easy choices. Play hardball and the recovery package could be delayed indefinitely. Caving to Orbán means giving up on any shared moral basis to the European political project. Either way, this will affect the EU’s future as a bloc.

The base alloy of hypocrisy. In the first U.S. presidential debate, U.S. President Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacist groups, instead telling them to “stand back and stand by.” Texas Governorgovernor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation requiring counties to designate a single location for ballot drop-offs and allowing political parties to install poll watchers to observe the process.

How we feel: Scared. Angry. Disappointed. It doesn’t matter to us much that a Trump adviser subsequently clarified that President Trump “clearly” meant he wants such groups to “knock it off.” It wasn’t just “the libs” who took the President’s words to mean implicit support for such groups. The white supremacist groups themselves thought that’s what the President was saying too. Attitude reflects leadership. It is the year 2020 and U.S. leaders are still making it harder rather than easier for people to vote. There are and will always be legitimate political disagreement between opposing interests in a democracy. There will even be vehement and at times disrespectful disagreement between competing visions and contentious factions. That’s not what this is, and to the extent we have any sort of “platform,” we’d be doing y’all a disservice if we let such things pass by and pretended as if they were normal. The difference between fastidious objectivity and nihilism is subtle.

What it means: It is not hyperbole to say that there is more uncertainty around the 2020 presidential election than any previous U.S. election going back to 1860. Meanwhile, the world is watching. When The New York Times broke its two-part story on President Trump’s taxes, it was front-page news in every foreign newspaper we read the next day. (And we read a lot of them.) As we wrote earlier this week in our analysis of the ongoing mini-war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it is not a coincidence that we are observing small global conflicts simmer throughout the world. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and the U.S. should not be surprised that “America First” is being emulated by friends and foes alike.

Honorable mention

A polar bear attacked and damaged a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter. (Is this not the most Canadian news item you’ve ever read?)

Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that the bread in Subway’s heated sandwiches contains has so much sugar in it that it does not meet the legal definition of “being bread” and therefore should not be exempt from value-added tax.

Unnamed Trump administration officials told Bloomberg that the U.S. will begin an investigation into Vietnam’s currency imminently using the same law used to apply tariffs against China. The Asia Times headline for this story is priceless: “Trump takes trade war aim at Vietnam’s dong.

China is considering opening an antitrust probe into Google at Huawei’s request.

Spain’s Supreme Court banned Quim Torra, the separatist regional president of Catalonia, from public office for 18 months.

Brazil is importing soybeans from Uruguay and Paraguay due to decreased stockpiles caused by increased Chinese demand and high prices.

Libyan oil production is steadily increasing, now up to 300,000 barrels per day.

The U.S. is considering relocating American military assets currently stationed at Incirlik airbase to Crete.

Flooding in Sudan has affected one-third of cultivated land and displaced 3 million people, according to the UN. In neighboring South Sudan, 700,000 people have been affected in what the World Food Programme has deemed the “worst flooding in 60 years.”

Borat is back. He’s the hero Gotham deserves.