Daily Briefing

Trump interrupts the Maas-Freeland love-in

Botschafterkonferenz im Auswärtigen Amt
Freeland, Maas. Source: DPA

A week has passed since Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, proposed in our pages his bold new vision of a Europe that is, more or less, independent of the the United States and its whims. The onus is now on Mr. Maas to follow up those words with actions. Mainly, he wants to gather a posse of multilateralist countries – including France, Japan, Canada and Mexico – in order to form a diplomatic “counterweight” against the newly unilateralist US.

Canada, for one, seems really eager to join that good fight. That was certainly the signal Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian foreign minister, sent this week, as she was visiting Berlin. It was time for liberal democracies to counter the spread of authoritarianism, she cooed to Mr. Maas at a gathering of diplomats.

Alas, Ms. Freeland then had to interrupt the love-in and hurry back across the Atlantic to deal with the latest unilateralist eruption in Washington. That’s because Mexico, another country on Mr. Maas’s list of potential good guys, had just thrown Canada under the bus. It caved to Donald Trump’s pressure and agreed to a bilateral trade deal that, according to Trump, would replace the trilateral NAFTA that includes Canada, and that is to Trump a dirty word. Canada, Trump sneered with evident disdain, can also sign the terms he forced on Mexico, or go to hell.

Replacing multilateral deals with bilateral ones is generally a terrible idea because it disrupts the complex transnational supply chains that have evolved. This rupture is already causing problems in North America, especially in the car industry. Even German companies are suffering, as we report today.

More generally, Trump yet again demonstrated how big his wrecking ball really is. He can spoil any party Mr. Maas throws in Berlin. And he can probably smash any grouping of multilateralists. America is simply too massive in every way for any counterweight to make a dent.

That may also doom Mr. Maas’s other idea: “establishing payment channels independent of the US … and an independent SWIFT system”, so that America can no longer unilaterally isolate individual countries financially (such as Iran, currently). But that is more easily said than done, as our analysis shows. The devil, as Mr. Maas concedes, is in the details. 

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“We are the people,” the brave folk of Saxony shouted as they stood up to their government. That was in 1989, and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, and the end of communist East Germany. The “people” in those choruses, as liberals in the West assumed, was the civic demos rising up against its tyrants with a primal scream for liberty.

Especially since the refugee crisis of 2015, Saxons have again been taking to the streets, often shouting the same chant: “We are the people.” But it is now clear that they don’t mean “we the demos” but “we the ethnos”: the tribe, the race, the blood. So it went again this week, as mobs marched through the streets of Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt, attacking people who looked foreign, giving the Hitler salute, and clashing with overwhelmed cops.

The trigger this time was a fatal stabbing of a German man in which the suspects are a Syrian and an Iraqi. But it is now clear that Saxony’s neo-Nazis were just waiting all along to activate their national networks to launch a pogrom.

Every responsible German, starting with President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel, is now condemning the Chemnitz mobs. But they dare not say what outsiders such as James Hawes see clearly. He is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany”, built largely on the thesis that eastern Germany has for a long, long time been different – and that this is a problem.

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What threats would we be worrying and talking about if we were sane, reasonable and wise? High up on the list would be the risk of a pandemic. I lived in Hong Kong when SARS broke out in 2003. That turned out to be just a shot across humanity’s bow. But it led me to research the history of the Spanish Flu, which killed between 50 and 100 million people in 1918, or 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. Another one is coming, you can be sure – in part because climate change is bringing us into contact with new bugs and new vectors.

China breeds a lot of those vectors, as nasty things flow between pigs, birds and people. That’s why it is so alarming that the Chinese government has been withholding lab samples of a new influenza virus making the rounds. It is another type of bird flu, called H7N9. The etiquette in these situations is that the country that notices the new virus sends it to the World Health Organization in Geneva, and also to other leading labs, including in the United States, so that humanity can jointly begin looking for vaccines and cures.

But China is not sending any samples to the US. One theory is that the exchange of medical samples has now been caught up in the Sino-American trade war. This is, quite simply, insane.

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