You are here

Foreign Policy in Focus

Subscribe to Foreign Policy in Focus feed
A think tank without walls
Updated: 2 min 37 sec ago

Lessons from Africa: Military Intervention Fails to Counter Terrorism

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 4:26pm


Late last year, President Trump provoked a furor when he declared his intent to withdraw some 1,400 US troops from West Africa, where he claimed they had quelled the terrorist threat. He sparked a similar firestorm when he announced that the U.S. would (eventually) pull 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, where they were engaged in an 18-year conflict against other violent extremists.

Critics included congressional Democrats, Republican stalwarts, and members of the U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic establishments, as well mainstream media pundits, international allies, and even some political progressives.

Establishment figures claimed that the battle against violent extremism was far from over and that U.S. military leadership was critical to victory. They pointed to ongoing insurgencies in the African countries of Mali and Nigeria in the Western Sahel and Somalia and Sudan in the Horn. Other progressives countered that U.S. policies have been ill-conceived and counterproductive — and that foreign military intervention has exacerbated the crises.

The establishment debate misses the point. Mainstream critics haggle over how many troops are needed, which nations should supply them, and where they should be deployed. The real question is whether present counterterrorism strategies are effective — and if not, what policies should be implemented instead.

Evidence from Africa makes it clear that military solutions do not work, and prescriptions imposed from above and outside often fail. Local initiatives that address underlying grievances have been more effective. But their impact will be limited without fundamental social, economic, and political change. To effectively counter violent extremism, the U.S. must withdraw support for the corrupt and repressive governments that foster discontent and assist local endeavors that address the people’s needs.

The disagreement between mainstream and progressive critics in the U.S. is rooted in fundamentally different visions of the role of the United States in the world community. Most establishment intellectuals embrace the notion of American exceptionalism, arguing that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, and to fulfill its mission, it must maintain its position at the helm of the global order.

Proponents of this view ordinarily promote military solutions, as well as economic development and (sometimes) democracy. Progressives, in contrast, reject this sanguine characterization of U.S. actions and denounce the policies that have led to endless war. To resolve the current crisis, the United States and its partners must fundamentally shift their perspective and alter their approach. Continuing on the present path will only result in greater mayhem.

Current U.S. Africa policy, developed during the Cold War, was conceived by leaders and proponents of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Marked by militarism and misunderstanding, it has failed to identify the factors that undermine human security and offered wrong-headed solutions that often exacerbate the problem. The post-9/11 war on terror has led to particularly grievous results.

Military Solutions Don’t Work

Contrary to common misconceptions, religion and ethnicity are not the root causes of African conflicts.

Rather, the sources are deep structural inequalities — poverty, underdevelopment, and political repression — and the devastating impact of climate change. Governmental neglect and the drying up of Lake Chad ignited the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria; the expanding desert in western Sudan has pitted herders against farmers in the struggle for water and usable land; and the destruction of the fishing industry by foreign trawlers led to piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Where do we start? First, we need to determine what does not work.

Counterterrorism operations, whether conducted by the U.S. or its allies, have been catastrophic. Intervention in the Sahel exemplifies the problem. In Mali and Nigeria, government actions in insurgent areas, and externally directed drone and missile strikes, have killed countless unarmed civilians. Such actions have increased local support for insurgent forces. Military successes have generally been short-lived, as violent extremists have regrouped and shifted their focus to unprotected civilians.

Local governments backed by the United States and its allies rarely address the structural problems that triggered the conflicts. As a result, local populations, neglected by their governments, have turned to extremist groups for income, basic services, and protection. Peace agreements, imposed from above and outside, fail to give voice to affected populations and jihadi organizations have been denied a seat at the table, even though they are critical parties to the conflicts. Not surprisingly, most of the accords have collapsed.

Foreign intervention in the Horn of Africa has had similar results. In Somalia, the intensification of US airstrikes has stimulated increased extremist activity and a corresponding refocus on civilian targets. Abuses by unaccountable regimes and foreign troops have generated a popular backlash, and externally brokered peace accords that excluded local voices have resulted in a succession of failed governments.

What have we learned? There will be no peace if underlying grievances are not addressed, domestic and foreign militaries continue to victimize local populations, and dysfunctional states fail to provide basic services.

Shifting the Focus

If the question is not how many troops and where should they be, what should we ask?

First, we must question our current framing of U.S. national security interests. Like Trump’s America firsters, establishment liberals tend to view U.S. national security primarily in military terms that focuses on the defense of national borders against external military threats.

Instead, we need to embrace a more expansive concept of “human security” that focuses on people rather than territory and includes health, education, employment, environment, and respect for human rights and civil liberties as factors critical to human well-being. The safeguarding of both U.S. and global security requires a multidimensional approach that addresses the root causes of problems that threaten the world today.

Second, we need to acknowledge that we do not have the answers and seek out those who do. We will learn that grassroots endeavors — organized by African-led agricultural cooperatives, trade unions, and women’s and youth groups — are already addressing the grievances that spring from poverty and inequality and the conflicts that result. They have lived the experience and have developed the best solutions. They must guide our policy choices.

Third, the U.S. and its allies should support local peace initiatives that include all affected parties. Key actors should not be sidelined at their discretion.

Finally, we should withdraw our support for corrupt, repressive regimes and instead advance US and multilateral initiatives that promote democracy, human rights, and economic, environmental, and climate justice. The only path to greater U.S. security is greater human security worldwide. Although fundamental political, economic, and social transformations will take decades, they are the only solution to crises in Africa and the global south.

The post Lessons from Africa: Military Intervention Fails to Counter Terrorism appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Elizabeth Schmidt is professor emeritus of history at Loyola University Maryland and the author of six books about Africa. Her most recent book, available for free download, is Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the War on Terror.

Can Coronavirus Be a Catalyst for Thinking Globally?

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 2:59pm


This article builds on a multipart essay series entitled Beyond Eurocentrism and U.S. Exceptionalism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is global, but national responses have spanned a wide spectrum. After initial denial, China mobilized massively and appears to be winning its battle against the virus. Several close neighbors of China — Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea — reacted quickly and decisively, taking advantage of systems set up to counter earlier epidemics.

But Italy and other European countries, as well as Iran, were slow to respond, and the United States is even more laggard, making all these countries vulnerable to exponential rates of infection.

African countries, with the help of the World Health Organization, responded quickly, and the case count at this writing still mainly consists of imported cases from Europe. But the rapid growth that is almost inevitable in Africa could quickly overwhelm poorly resourced health systems. And social distancing is impossible for the majority of Africa’s population.

On March 23, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown intended to curb the virus, with plans to mobilize national resources to protect South African formal and informal workers as well as businesses. His speech, available on YouTube and as a transcript, was detailed and determined. But implementation will be extraordinarily difficult.

Much of Latin America and South Asia is in a similar situation, along with many countries in other regions. And, as in the United States, investments in public health institutions have been eroded by austerity policies in countries around the world.

The Trigger, Not The Cause

At national and global levels, the pandemic has already led to drastic economic consequences, for the stock market and for the real economy. But the disease is the trigger rather than the only cause of these problems, notes Marxist economist Michael Roberts in an extended blog post. “That’s because,” he explains, “the profitability of capital is low and global profits are static at best, even before COVID-19 erupted. Global trade and investment have been falling, not rising.”

Households and government institutions at all levels face challenges that are coming fast, and a fast learning curve is imperative if we are to survive. At an individual level, we are learning rapidly that social distancing, which is really physical distancing, is essential. Along with reaching out to our families and personal networks, we know we must mobilize support for essential health workers, grocery workers, and others who are required to work on the frontlines despite personal risks. One among many such creative efforts is a project in New York City that organizes unemployed gig drivers to deliver meals to vulnerable seniors.

At national level, the pandemic is revealing the failures of our institutions and testing their capacity to adapt. Policy debates show sharp contrasts between those who would use the crisis to blame others and accentuate inequalities and those who are questioning entrenched assumptions about the role of government in defending common interests.

Resistance to learning lessons is most firmly entrenched in the Trump administration and the Republican Party. But the pressure to bail out the rich and neglect the most vulnerable is widespread, despite calls for a different course, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren´s conditions for corporate bailouts, or this proposal to follow Denmark’s ambitious stimulus example.

At the global level, it is past time both for mutual learning and for solidarity. And on both counts, the United States is behind the curve.

Global Learning

Within specialized scientific communities, scientists from China, the United States, and other countries are in contact regularly to share research about the virus. “Preprint” articles appear daily on sites such as medRxiv. Although these articles have not been formally peer reviewed or published, they are an important means of airing new ideas and receiving scientific feedback. When one such article in early February sparked the viral spread of a conspiracy theory on Twitter, pushback was immediate, and the faulty article was withdrawn within days of its release.

At the policy level, however, ingrained institutional and cultural biases block rapid learning. This is particularly true in the United States, with its longstanding hubris and belief in U.S. exceptionalism.

Mainstream commentators, such as foreign policy veteran Dennis Ross, are already lamenting the U.S. failure to provide global leadership. But their emphasis is on how the United States is “losing” geopolitical ground to China rather than on the missed opportunity to learn from other countries´ experiences, including South Korea as well as China. Such learning is happening, but the pace is still limited by assumptions of U.S. exceptionalism and the lack of established bilateral channels at the level of governmental institutions.

There is also the need for more fundamental questioning of the models of industrial agriculture that analysts say have fueled the rise of zoonotic diseases, as natural habitats are invaded by human populations. According to a new report from the African Centre for Biodiversity:

“Most pandemics in fact, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more, have their roots in environmental change and ecosystem disturbances. These infectious zoonotic diseases originate from animals, wild and domesticated. These diseases are magnified through the erosion of ecosystem health, deforestation, biodiversity loss, ecosystem destruction and the removal of essential, natural, protective barriers.”

The point is also developed in a recent interview with Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu. Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello argues that both Western and Chinese models of capitalism share this extractivist orientation.

Global Solidarity

With the United States struggling to confront the coronavirus at home, the country’s capacity to provide solidarity to other countries is very limited. Help will have to come from elsewhere when, as expected, the global pandemic and its economic impact land with full force on Africa and other vulnerable regions. If the United States wanted to help efficiently, it could immediately provide additional financial support to multilateral agencies such as the World Health OrganizationUNICEF, as well as a UN special fund being launched.

The UN Secretary General on March 19 eloquently called for global solidarity:

“We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations — one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending people’s lives. A global recession — perhaps of record dimensions — is a near certainty.”

Saudi Arabia, the current chair of the G-20 group of major economic powers, has called a virtual summit for this week at the urging of India. Although the potential for agreement on common action is uncertain, it is very likely that China will play a major role, and that the United States will be irrelevant at best.

Already China is taking the lead, not only in dealing with the virus at home, but also in providing supplies and expertise to other countries. Initiatives are coming both from the Chinese government and from the Chinese private sector. Billionaire Jack Ma, for example, has provided 500,000 test kits and 1 million masks to the United States. He has also shipped 1.1 million testing kits and 6 million masks to Ethiopia to be distributed by Ethiopian Airlines around the African continent.

Cuba is not a member of the G-20, but it has continued its decades-long tradition of medical solidarity. When a British cruise ship in the Caribbean was denied entry by the United States and other countries, Cuba accepted the almost 1,000 passengers, including 50 with symptoms of coronavirus, and provided secure transport to meet chartered planes to fly them back to Britain. And last week, Cuba sent more than 50 doctors to northern Italy to join the battle there against coronavirus. A Facebook video of their arrival on March 22 gained almost 4 million viewers within 24 hours.

Like the climate crisis and economic inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic may not at first glance seem to be a “foreign policy” issue. But it powerfully points up the need to forge a global perspective — and global alliances — without delay. Progressives must lead the way, and the coronavirus is an immediate opportunity to change the way we think to always recognize domestic and global realities as intertwined. Both self-interest and moral values make this imperative.

The post Can Coronavirus Be a Catalyst for Thinking Globally? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality. William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin.

The Politics of the Coronavirus

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 3:08pm

Donald Trump meets Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. (Photo: Israel FMA / Flickr / creative commons)

The far right thrives on fear. It’s no surprise, then, that it would use the latest pandemic, which has generated widespread panic, to bolster its own agenda.

All of the hallmarks of the far right are in play during the current crisis. It has pushed to close borders. It has demonized foreigners and particularly border-crossers. It has spread a variety of conspiracy theories. And where it is in power — Hungary, Israel — it has moved to increase that power through emergency measures.

On the other hand, the incompetent response of some right-wing leaders — Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — may well set back the far right in certain countries. Moreover, the scale of the threat has put on the table the kind of large-scale transformative policies that hitherto circulated only on the margins.

So, which way will COVID-19 ultimately push the political pendulum?

From Denial to Weaponization

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were in the White House today.

The far right, led by the head of the anti-Hillary forces, Donald Trump, would have immediately used the “China virus” to demand that the Clinton administration close all borders and ban all immigrants and refugees. Under ordinary conditions, in other words, the far right would have had a field day in the United States using the coronavirus threat to advance its xenophobic agenda in the face of a liberal, cautious Washington consensus.

But with Trump in the Oval Office rather than sitting on the sidelines lobbing the pundit’s equivalent of Molotov cocktails, the far right started out in denial. When the pandemic began in China at the end of December, after all, it was far away and it was not infecting Americans. Even when the pathogen was detected for the first time in the United States on January 21 — in a young man returning to Washington state from China — right-wing pundits continued to downplay the risk for weeks on end.

On February 24, for instance, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience that “the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

He would say on another occasion that the greater threat to the country was Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party more generally. Just as becoming president didn’t make Trump more presidential in conduct, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom clearly didn’t make Limbaugh any more professional in conduct.

The breakdown of concern among Americans has followed the political contours of the country. Writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic this week:

A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.

As the Trump administration finally switched into its own incompetent version of engagement, some sections of the far right zoomed well past the denial phase. Those of a survivalist and apocalyptic bent are already halfway to their bunkers, with Alex Jones of Infowars infamy trying to profit off the panic by raising the prices on his prepper products. It’s part of a more general wave of profiteering that encompasses Amazon price-gougers and traffickers of inside information like Richard Burr (R-NC) in the Senate.

Neo-Nazis and sovereignists, meanwhile, are rejoicing at the failures of the federal state to handle the crisis. They are anticipating the realization of their cherished dream: the collapse of the liberal order. Still other extremists in the QAnon camp believe that Trump will use the virus as a pretext to arrest members of a global liberal pedophile ring (like Trump, they simply double down when their assertions are proven wrong, as in the Comet Pizza debacle).

Then there’s the blame game. Jerry Falwell fingered North Korea as the culprit behind the coronavirus. California Republican Joanne Wright, like many of her tribe, has asserted that China manufactured the disease but added the twist that Bill Gates financed the plot. And it wouldn’t be a wacky right-wing conspiracy if George Soros somehow weren’t implicated as well.

Chinese and Asians more generally have faced a terrifying uptick in attacks and discrimination. With the appearance of each new hotspot — Iran, Italy — targeted xenophobia has been sure to follow. Soon, thanks to Trump, it will be Americans in the crosshairs.

As far as the American far right’s anti-immigrant agenda, the Trump administration is already carrying that water. Trump closed the border with Mexico. He announced that all undocumented trying to get into this country will be summarily turned back.

Even the migrant workers who are seasonally granted H2-A visas to work on American farms are finding it difficult to cross the border. Farm owners pushed back against a ban, forcing the administration to accept workers previously granted such visas. But the absence of new workers will still leave U.S. agriculture dangerously understaffed.

Borderline Issue

For decades, Europe has been at war with itself over borders — both its internal borders and its borders with the rest of the world. The coronavirus has taken that war to a new level.

The overwhelming obsession of the far right in Europe has been to reduce or eliminate immigration from points east and south. Some political parties, like Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland, even support “remigration”: namely, forcing established immigrants to leave the country.

The coronavirus offers the far right yet another arrow in its quiver. “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. “There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, far-right leader Matteo Salvini has used the pandemic to push his “closed ports” policy. In February, even as the outbreak was gathering steam in his country, Salvini declared that “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there was only one reported case on the whole continent, in Egypt.

In Germany, the identitarian movement hung banners proclaiming “Defend Our Borders” on the Brandenburg Gate, once a potent symbol of the erased border between east and west Germany. Throughout Europe, far-right parties were retooling their “great replacement” narrative — that immigrants are poised to overwhelm majority populations — to incorporate the coronavirus. The threat that outsiders supposedly pose to the health of nations has long been a singular obsession of fascists.

It wasn’t just the threat from outside Europe.

In 1995, seven European nations created the Schengen Area, which abolished their internal border controls and visa requirements. Eventually becoming subject to European Union law, the area expanded to include 26 states. Practically from the beginning, the far right has taken aim at Schengen as an unacceptable abridgement of sovereignty. It has argued that Schengen makes control of immigrants more difficult (as with the influx of Tunisians into Italy in 2011) and compromised anti-terrorist policing (in the wake of a terrorism suspect’s flight from Germany to Italy in 2016). Still, Schengen survived.

What the far right wasn’t able to do, the coronavirus managed in a matter of weeks. Some members reestablished internal border controls without notifying the EU Commission, as required by the Schengen Border Code. These moves prompted the EU to declare last week that all internal borders will be closed for 30 days. The next step for the far right, and its more mainstream conservative allies, is to try to make this temporary change permanent.

Separating the Competent…

For some illiberal leaders, the coronavirus is like a golden ticket. It allows them to sweep away what remains of the rule of law in their countries.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary moves to hang onto power. Up until recently, things weren’t looking so good for Bibi. He was supposed to go on trial this week for corruption. The last election provided a narrow victory to his opposition, and the head of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, was given first shot at forming a government.

But the coronavirus, a death sentence for so many people, has been a lifeline for Netanyahu.

As part of a more general lockdown, the prime minister froze the judiciary. And that just happened to put his own trial on hold. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Knesset, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned this week and closed down parliament rather than allow a vote to elect his successor, who would likely have been from the Blue and White alliance.

Because of new rules that limit public gathering, it’s impossible for people to come out on the streets to protest any of this. It goes further, as Gershon Gorenberg explains in The Washington Post. Even as the government was freezing the justice system…

Netanyahu himself announced that the government would use electronic means to track the locations of citizens in an effort to enforce self-isolation. That quickly turned out to mean giving the Shin Bet security service the power to locate people via their cellphones. That measure, an extreme infringement on civil rights, should be vetted by a Knesset committee. Instead, Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.

Think of it as a stealth coup. Plus the transformation of Israel into a police state. Or, put another way, Israelis are now going to understand a little more of what Palestinians have known for a long time.

Viktor Orban has done something similar in Hungary. He has put a new law in front of parliament that would give his government extraordinary power to detain pretty much anyone, as Kim Lane Scheppele points out in Hungarian Spectrum.

Anyone who publicizes false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public — or that alarm or agitate that public — could be punished by up to five years in prison. And anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result.

The first set of controls is aimed at what remains of an independent press in Hungary. The second could incarcerate anyone who objects to anything the Orban government does.

As if that’s not enough, the prime minister could, according to the proposal, “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” These would be permanent changes in Hungarian law.

Many sectors of Hungarian civil society have vehemently opposed this proposed “enabling act.” And parliament failed to pass the bill on the first attempt this week. But it’s likely that Orban will try again next week, relying on his party’s comfortable majority in parliament to get it through.

…From the Incompetent

Donald Trump’s dangerously ill-informed response to the coronavirus — including such basic failures as providing test kits and other basic resources to hospitals — has incredibly not spelled his political demise.

According to a recent Monmouth poll, 50 percent of Americans think he’s done a good job versus only 45 percent who give him poor marks. His approval rating has even increased a couple points. That might change as the casualties rise, particularly if the president attempts to end the policies of social isolation early, as he has threatened to do. Or it might not, if the virus disproportionately affects blue urban areas.

For all his incompetence, Trump hasn’t been so stupid as to miss the political opportunity to push through parts of his cherished economic agenda, like further tax cuts. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is asking Congress for new emergency powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. The Trump administration is clearly looking to Israel and Hungary as examples.

Other incompetent leaders, however, may not survive politically.

Jair Bolsonaro has largely followed the same script as Trump by downplaying the risk of the pandemic. On March 15, despite having been in close contact with several members of his administration who’d already contracted the disease, Bolsanaro joined a demonstration of his supporters where he touched a reported 272 people. The president has claimed that his tests have come back negative. He also continues to argue that the crisis is little more than a media conspiracy.

Millions of people appeared last week at their windows in the big cities to bang pots and pans in a demand for Bolsonaro to step down. Even some of his conservative backers are outraged and have turned against him. After declaring in a December column in the conservative Estado de São Paulo that Bolsonaro is “unbeatable” in the next election, political commentator Eliane Cantanhêde argued more recently, “I think he’s fatally wounded for the election [in 2022] … If the election was held today there is a big chance Bolsonaro would be defeated.”

COVID-19 affects people differently depending on their underlying conditions. The same holds true for politicians. The most fit will survive while the politically weak will be weeded out.

Time for Transformation

Nuclear apocalypse is hypothetical. The worst effects of climate change are in the future. Neither nuclear disarmament nor radical cuts in carbon emissions have been on table because of the unfortunate tendency of politicians to minimize the risks and ignore the already considerable short-term impacts.

The coronavirus crisis is not abstract. It’s happening right now. Country after country has imposed quarantines, dramatically changing how people live, work, and interact. Governments are considering massive bailouts to save the economy and bolster medical systems. But those are just quick fixes.

“We changed the way we live, work and travel to counter this pandemic, why can we not do the same to counter the climate emergency?” asks Lorenzo Marsili in Al Jazeera. “Why should we go back to a deadly status quo now that we know it is within our power to transform the way we live and organise our economy and society?”

When the quarantines end, as they inevitably will, the world will experience the same kind of rebound in carbon emissions that happened after the end of the 2009 financial crisis. So, the economic response to this pandemic must incorporate features of the Green New Deal or we will be jumping out of a frying pan and into a literal fire.

COVID-19 is a near-death experience for the human race. Just as individuals often react to such experiences by transforming their lives, the current crisis should force a reevaluation of the status quo.

Anything less will be just a temporary stay of execution.

The post The Politics of the Coronavirus appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

How Austerity and Anti-Immigrant Politics Left Italy Exposed

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 11:18am

An empty street in quarantined Turin, Italy (Shutterstock)

As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.


Italy has the fourth largest economy in the European Union, and in terms of health care, it is certainly in a better place than the United States. Per capita, Italy has more hospital beds — so-called “surge capacity” — and more doctors and more ventilators. Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention British, French, Germans, Swedes, and Finns. The virus has had an especially fatal impact on northern Italy, the country’s richest region.

There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, right-wing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Aging Out

Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. It did not get that way by accident.

Right-wing parties have long targeted immigrants, even though Italy’s immigrant population — a little over 600,000 — is not large by international standards. Calling immigrants a “threat to European values” has been the rallying cry for the right in France, Germany, Hungry, Poland, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain as well.

In the last Italian election, the League and its then ally, the Five Star Movement, built their campaigns around resisting immigration. Anti-immigrant parties also did well in Spain, and certainly played a major role in pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.

Resistance to immigration plays a major role in “graying” the population. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, surpassing only Japan. The demographic effects of this are “an apocalypse,” according to former Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years,” she continued, “we have lost more than 66,000 births” per year — more than the population of the city of Siena. “If we link this to this increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

According to the World Health Organization, the ideal birth-death replacement ratio in advanced countries is 2.1. Italy’s is 1.32., which means not only an older population, but also fewer working age people to pay the taxes that fund the social infrastructure, including health care.

As long as there is no major health crisis, countries muddle though. But when something like the coronavirus arrives, it exposes the underlying weaknesses of the system.

Some 60 percent of Italians are over 40, and 23 percent are over 65. It is demographics like these that make Covid-19 so lethal.

From age 10 to 39, the virus has a death rate of 0.2 percent, more deadly than influenza, but not overly so. But starting at age 40, the death rate starts to rise, reaching 8 percent for adults aged 70 to 79, and then jumping to 14.8 percent over 80. The average age of coronavirus deaths in Italy is 81.


In addition to its graying population, today Italy is being haunted by the years of austerity that followed the global recession a decade ago.

When the economic meltdown hit Europe in 2008, the European Union responded by instituting painful austerity measures that targeted things like health care. Over the past 10 years, Italy has cut some 37 billion euros from its health system. The infrastructure that could have dealt with a health crisis like Covid-19 was hollowed out, so that when the disease hit, there simply weren’t enough resources to resist it.

Add to that the age of Italians, and the outcome was almost foreordained.

The issues in Italy’s 2018 election were pretty straightforward: slow growth, high youth unemployment, a starving education system, and a deteriorating infrastructure — Rome was almost literally drowning in garbage. But instead of the failed austerity strategy of the EU, the main election theme became immigration, a subject that had nothing to do with Italy’s economic crisis, troubled banking sector, or burdensome national debt.

Berlusconi, leader of the right-wing Forza Italia Party, said “All these immigrants live off of trickery and crime.” Forza made common cause with the fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, called for halting immigrants with a “naval blockade.”

The main voice of the xenophobic campaign, however, was Salvini and the League. Immigrants, he said, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape, and violence,” and pose a threat to the “white race.”

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Mario joined the immigrant bashing, if not with quite the vitriol of Berlusconi, Salvini, and Meloni. The center-left Democratic Party ducked the issue, leaving the field to the right.

The outcome was predictable: the Democratic Party was routed and the Five Star Movement and League swept into power. Salvini took the post of Interior Minister and actually instituted a naval blockade, a violation of international law and the 1982 Law of the Sea.

Eventually the League and Five Star had a falling out, and Salvini was ousted from his post, but the damage was done. The desperately needed repairs to infrastructure and investments in health care were shelved. When Covid-19 stuck, Italy was unprepared.

Italy’s Not Alone

Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, where more than a decade of austerity policies have weakened health care systems all over the continent.

Nor is Italy facing a demographic catastrophe alone. The EU-wide replacement ratio is a tepid 1.58, with only France and Ireland approaching — but not reaching — 2.1.

If Germany does not increase the number of migrants it takes, the population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, reducing the workforce to 54 percent of the population — not enough to keep up with current levels of social spending. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that Germany will need 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at current levels.

Spain — which saw the right-wing anti-immigration party do well in the last election — is bleeding population, particularly in small towns, some 1,500 of which have been abandoned. Spain has weathered a decade and a half of austerity, which damaged the country’s health care infrastructure. After Italy, Spain is the European country hardest hit by Covid-19.

As populations age, immigrants become a necessity. Not only is new blood needed to fill in the work needs of economies, broadening the tax base that pays for infrastructure, but, old people also need caretaking, as the Japanese have found out. After centuries of xenophobic policies that made immigration to Japan almost impossible, the Japanese have been forced to accept large numbers of migrants to staff senior facilities.

The United States will face a similar crisis if the Trump administration is successful in choking off immigration. While the U.S. replacement ratio is higher than the EU’s, it still falls under 2.1, and that will have serious demographic consequences in the long run.

It may be that a for-profit health system like the U.S. model simply can’t cope with a pandemic because it finds maintaining adequate surge capacity in hospital beds, ventilators, and staff reduces stockholders’ dividends. And public health care systems in Europe — which have better outcomes than the American system’s — only work if they are well funded.

To the biblical four horsemen — war, famine, wild beasts, and plague — we can add two more: profits and austerity.

The post How Austerity and Anti-Immigrant Politics Left Italy Exposed appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Conn Hallinan can be read at and 

Open the Borders. Open the Prison Gates. Don’t Sacrifice a Single Person to This Virus.

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 9:14am


From treating the crisis like a “hoax” to botching the rollout of tests, the federal government has already made a series of decisions that are worsening the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s announcement that the United States will bar asylum seekers at the border is yet another that will guarantee more death and suffering as the infection unfolds. That is why ending the detention of immigrants and allowing people stuck at the border entry is not only the humane thing to do: It is also what will best serve public health.

This may come as a surprise. Isn’t the best approach right now to limit movement? Shouldn’t people stay where they are? Why then would the United States open its borders to large numbers of people seeking entry?

To answer these questions, we have to look at the situation that the policies have already caused.

We all remember the past two years’ worth of horrific photos and videos of children and adults packed into animal cages in detention centers, suffering obvious neglect. Or people detained under bridges in Texas when their numbers exceeded the capacity of the Border Patrol to hold them indoors.

There is an unfolding conversation about the fact that prisons, jails and other carceral facilities pose a special threat to public health in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The basic recommendations from the CDC, such as regularly washing hands and keeping a distance between people, are impossible to follow in the dirty, overcrowded conditions behind bars.

As Homer Venter, a physician formerly employed at Rikers Island, has said, “Jails and prisons may actually drive this epidemic curve up. These are places that can serve as reservoirs or accelerators of an outbreak.”

This is true for immigrant detention too. And yet, the drive to detain more—particularly the crackdown that Trump promised targeting migrants in sanctuary cities—continues. ICE agents are carrying out raids in California with respiratory masks.

At the same time as the attack on immigrants has produced dangerous and inhumane conditions in U.S. detention facilities, it has also created a parallel crisis and public health timebomb at the border.

A combination of policies, from the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program) that forces asylum seekers awaiting legal proceedings to wait south of the border, to so-called “metering”—allowing a tiny number of people to apply for asylum at the border each day—has produced a bottleneck for people seeking entry to the country. Predictably, makeshift camps of thousands have emerged in cities on the Mexican side of the border, such as Tijuana, Motomoros and Juarez as people patiently await entry.

One does not need to be an epidemiologist to understand why forcing large numbers of families into squalid camps, exposed to the elements, with no running water and minimal access to medical attention makes them vulnerable to countless health threats—especially a highly contagious infection spread by sneezing and coughing.

The well-being of these people should be enough to pursue a humane approach rather than abandoning them. But leaving them susceptible to certain infection, without the possibility of treatment, not only threatens those stuck in the camps. It threatens the health of the public at large.

If there is one biology lesson that the whole world is learning, it is that infectious disease travels. By keeping asylum seekers out of the country and effectively forcing them into informal encampments to survive, the U.S. government has put them in tremendous danger. It has also stoked the fuel for wildfires of infection that will easily spread and be difficult to put out. The impact will inevitably go beyond the camps and affect others in the U.S. and Mexico.

What can be done?

This is actually a problem all over the world. Many governments have pursued policies similar to Trump’s, and aid agencies are bracing for what happens when coronavirus hits the world’s refugee camps.

The promise of the Trump administration—and of other governments around the world that are closing their borders—that this will defend the nation from infection is a false one.

It is important to say, given incredible racism and xenophobia infusing the right wing’s language about the crisis (e.g. Trump calling coronavirus “the Chinese Virus”), that migrants at the border, or anywhere else, should not be seen as vectors for disease. They are human beings who have been put in a situation where infection was unavoidable. But just as government policies created those circumstances, new ones can end them.

And it is urgent that they be ended. What can be done?

First, as RAICES, the Detention Watch Network and hundreds of other organizations have called for, all immigration raids should immediately be suspended, and those detained should be released. Rather than add more people to U.S. detention facilities, they should be emptied.

And regarding its policies at the border, the United States needs to completely reverse course. As the Washington Office on Latin America and more than 150 other organizations recently demanded, the “Migrant Protection Protocols” should be ended. The United States should allow asylum seekers to enter the U.S. quickly and efficiently, and pursue due process in safety on this side of the border, which is their right under both international and U.S. law.

How could the U.S. government handle large numbers of people who no doubt have compromised health and very likely have been exposed to coronavirus? It can start by providing to them what everyone who has been potentially exposed to the virus deserves: testing, and treatment for those who test positive.

The government should also take responsibility for the safety of asylum seekers and refugees. Many of those trapped at the border have family and friends they are hoping to reunite with in cities and towns across the United States. It should be up to public health experts and medical professionals to decide if it makes sense for people to travel to these destinations. If so, the government should transport them safely and efficiently.

If the proposal that the government ferry immigrants seems strange or unreasonable, consider the fact that it already invests resources in transporting them—out of the country. The U.S. government uses commercial aircraft all the time to deport immigrants. Could it not use them, in an emergency, to transport people to their U.S. destinations instead? With a steep decline in air travel, there are plenty of grounded planes available.

Perhaps it makes more sense to direct people to particular locations, such as the border region or elsewhere, for now as the crisis unfolds—another question for public health and immigration policy experts. And no doubt there are people at the border who do not yet have homes in the United States to come to.

We have the capacity to house these people, as we do homeless people on this side of the border. As research from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has shown, millions of vacant housing units exist across the country. Organizations like People’s Action have been arguing that housing a right for all since before the outbreak.

Referring to the wealth that the United States invests year after year in militarism, race and housing scholar Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor argues that “we can divert billions of dollars toward the construction of low-rise apartment housing throughout cities.” This is true for everybody in this country, regardless of where they happened to be born.

Solidarity, not fear

In other words, the pandemic rippling through the world should force us to transform our society in ways that we should have before this crisis.

There is nothing to celebrate about the doom unfolding, and this will be a time with much darkness and pain. But it is also one that extends us an opportunity to reimagine what kind of society we want. It can be one that takes care of the most vulnerable as part of building a better world for all.

At the moment, we are headed in the opposite direction—a further entrenchment of the violence and inequality that made so many so vulnerable to COVID 19 and other dangers. Trump’s latest attacks on asylum seekers deepen the injustice and endanger us all. We have a choice. Release detainees, welcome asylum seekers, and give them the care that they need.

Solidarity, not fear, will allow us all to survive this outbreak.

This article was produced in partnership with

The post Open the Borders. Open the Prison Gates. Don’t Sacrifice a Single Person to This Virus. appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The King’s Speech

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 11:47am

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at Arlington National Cemetery (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue via Wikimedia Commons)

With the number of coronavirus infections and disease-related deaths rising rapidly in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte addressed the nation on March 16. “In the coming period, a large proportion of the Dutch population will become infected with this virus,” he said. “As we wait for a vaccine or treatment to be developed, we can delay the spread of the virus and at the same time build up population immunity in a controlled manner.”

The phrase “group immunity” provoked a very heated discussion. Far-right party leader Geert Wilders accused Rutte of conducting “an experiment with people” that could be “catastrophic.” Jaap van Dissel, a senior expert at the Dutch health agency RIVM and adviser to the Cabinet, said that too much meaning was being given to the phrase, saying it was not the goal of the current measures but a consequence of them.

This controversy takes place against the backdrop of the overall Dutch response to the crisis, which had until recently been notably less stringent than that of other European countries. During parliamentary debate on March 17, which lasted more than seven hours, Health Minister Bruno Bruins collapsed from exhaustion and had to be escorted out of the chamber. Wilders called for a full lockdown, which was supported by another far-right leader, Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy.

“Most politicians try to avoid panic and radiate unity. But Wilders and Baudet do the exact opposite,” observes Rob de Wijk, professor of international relations and security at Leiden University and founder of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS).

It is shocking that these politicians are only interested in the political gain that the crisis can bring. Arguing now, in high tones, for more measures that will inevitably come, but for which the time is apparently not yet ripe, makes it possible to say the day after tomorrow that this should have happened long ago, that these measures have been taken thanks to them …. Can’t Rutte make mistakes? That will have to be seen in the evaluation that will ones appear. Perhaps the Dutch approach was excellent, perhaps it was disastrous. We do not know. What I do know is that now is not the time for political games.

Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst predicted last Wednesday that the Netherlands would likely soon change its approach. “They still have under 50 dead, but they’re getting close — 100 dead and this policy is changing,” he said. “And at that moment it is going to be too late, or very late, to take the same measures as Belgium is taking now.”

Until recently,  tourists from Belgium and Germany were taking advantage of the less stringent controls in the Netherlands to cross the border to do some shopping and visit a pub or two.

On March 23, however, the Dutch government issued new regulations banning all public gatherings until June 1 and urging citizens to stay at home.

For his part, King Willem-Alexander addressed the nation on March 20. The monarch, who is perceived as a symbol of unity but has limited political power, provided little more than rhetoric. So, I felt compelled to criticize him. But then again, there is no doubt that his words were sincere. And surely people have a need for reassurance.

In his address, the king urged people to find it in their hearts to be as compassionate and assertive as possible during the coronavirus pandemic. He also offered his gratitude and praise for many of the hardest working people in the country. He didn’t speculate or take part in the discussion on the Cabinet’s measures. He doesn’t claim to know whether they should be more or less restrictive. He simply calls them “drastic but necessary.”

The words and meanings most pronounced in this speech were: compassion, solidarity, alertness, kindness, respect, and gratitude. “The efforts being made in many fields are exceptional,” he noted. “That of course includes our doctors and nurses… Thousands of former healthcare professionals and other volunteers are coming forward to offer their help. That’s fantastic.”

Besides medical personnel, he cited employees of the other vital sectors as well. “We realise all too well how essential the people are who are helping to prevent our society from coming to a complete standstill,” he continued. “Those working in logistics, supermarkets, the cleaning sector, ICT, education, childcare, public transport, the police and many other fields. You are carrying us through this extremely difficult time. Without you, we simply could not manage. Thank you so much.”

It should be the task of politicians in power to reinforce this gratitude and not only by verbal means. It is incumbent on everybody else to behave with humility toward those who cannot work from home and who are usually less well compensated for their labor.

The king’s speech didn’t offer any news of miraculous vaccines. But his words nevertheless can have a curative effect:

The Netherlands wouldn’t be the Netherlands if people didn’t spontaneously offer their help. People willing to lend a hand in nearby care homes. People volunteering to work for a helpline. Students offering to babysit for parents in key professions. The Coronavirus has unleashed an incredible amount of positive energy, creativity and public-spiritedness…These are the qualities we will be needing not only for the time being, but certainly also later on should things get even more challenging. Alertness, solidarity and kindness: as long as we can sustain these qualities, we will be able to tackle this crisis together, even if it lasts for some time. 2020 will be a year to remember. Everyone will experience it differently. But I hope and believe that feelings of solidarity and pride will prevail and bring us all closer, as we get through this most difficult of times together.

The post The King’s Speech appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Mira Oklobdzija is an independent researcher, activist, sociologist and anthropologist. For the last 12 years, she was a researcher on the team of experts working for the office of the Prosecutor at the UN ICTY. Her books include Revolution between Freedom and Dictatorship and, with Slobodan Drakulic and Claudio Venza, Urban Guerilla in Italy, as well as a number of articles dealing with human rights, political violence, war crimes, reconciliation, migrations, human nature, xenophobia, marginal groups, and outsiders. She lives in The Hague, Netherlands.